Northern latitudes helped make Marta a player of Sol importance

Johanna Frisk and Marta
As of Jan 7, the online Umeå IK fan forum had accepted the inevitable. “Thanks for everything! Best wishes in the future!” LA-bound teammates Marta, right, and Johanna Frisk are told. For the fourth straight season Umeå was crowned Swedish champion. (Photo © 2008 Umeå IK)

Frustrated by repeated cancellation of training and home matches, Umeå IK directors in 2003 ordered a new artificial surface and full-field underground heating system at the 10,000-capacity Gammliavallen stadium. They did not yet know how much the world’s greatest woman footballer, from the Sertão scrubland of Brazil’s northeast, would benefit starting the following season from a dry, dependable, fast surface that would facilitate her feints and double dragbacks at pace.

From the women’s soccer backwater of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where 17-year-old Marta Vieira da Silva had been playing for the club Santa Cruz, she would switch hemispheres to Umeå of the Swedish Norrland, where snowpacks, sometimes as deep as 80cm (31”), are in evidence five months per year. Where, in deepest winter, daylight lasts less than five hours. Where, when there is no football at the Gammliavallen, a cross-country ski race might finish.

The loss to the Women’s United Soccer Association, which announced its collapse shortly before the Women’s World Cup in Sept 03, was the gain of the Swedish Damallsvenskan. On 4 Feb 04, two weeks shy of her 18th birthday, Marta and friend Marina arrived at latitude 63° 50′ N.

“In Umeå,” writes Marta biographer Diego Graciano (see 15 Sept 08),

the summers are replete with light. But in winters, the rigors are stark, nothing but snow and night. Marta would not forget her tears on touching the snowy ground. “When I was descending on the airplane I was frightened by the amount of ice, and I asked Marina: ‘Can it be that they play football in this country?’ ”

Mats Bråstedt

Bråstedt

“It’s dark,” Expressen reporter Mats Bråstedt, based in Stockholm, an hourlong plane journey to the south, says simply in our Jan 8 podcast (see below).

On Jan 6, after close to a five-year association, Umeå IK and Marta parted ways, suddenly, with cold legalisms contained in a 40-page contract from Los Angeles Sol of Women’s Professional Soccer and with her old club’s press release: “Discussion between the Umeå IK management and Marta da Silva’s agent Fabiano Farah over whether Marta will or will not be part of Umeå IK in the upcoming season for our part is complete.”

At today’s FIFA World Player of the Year Gala in Zürich, Marta confirmed her decision in a press conference before announcement of the awards. Marta outpolled Brazil teammate Cristiane, Birgit Prinz (Germany), Nadine Angerer (Germany) and Kelly Smith (England) to win the women’s honor for the third straight year. Cristiane said she would join the WPS Chicago franchise.

The move to Umeå marked a profound shift in Marta’s football career. Graciano in Você é mulher, Marta! (You Are a Woman, Marta!) writes eloquently that she had passed “from ignored to photographed. From excluded to admitted. From ‘macho woman’ to lady.”

From a nation in which women’s football had been banned into the 1980s, Marta staked the most critical stage of her athletic development to the so-called benevolent socialism of Sweden. This communitarian impulse finds expression in some 22,000 sport clubs that have nurtured female athletes—but not without hiccups. Jonny Hjelm and Eva Olofsson in their survey of Swedish women’s football note that in the 1970s Swedish scientists investigated alleged connections between “hard blows to the chest region” and breast cancer. There was no connection, researchers found.

The city of Umeå started the country’s first women’s football league in 1950. Four teams—two korplag or company sides, two composed of handball players—competed for the title of Umemästarrinnorna, Umeå women’s champions. The games attracted up to 100 spectators. The league, for unknown reasons, ended before the 1952 season, leaving women’s football to develop through exhibitions against “old-boys’ sides” until organized play restarted in the ’60s. (For more background on women’s football in Sweden, see 31 May 05.)


Interviews with journalists Bråstedt (Stockholm) and Ruuth (Umeå) on Jan 8. (25:09) Download »

“Umeå gave me five wonderful years,” Marta, with emotion, said at her Jan 12 press conference in Opernhaus Zürich.

She leaves a trail of Marta wannabes, both in Sweden and Brazil, practicing her rendition of the Zinédine Zidane pirouette. Brazilian media now publicize “new Martas” such as 15-year-old Sabrina Aurèlio of Santos. An O Globo video shows Aurèlio playing futsal, juggling in flip-flops and wearing the number 10 for her local side.

In retrospect, Marta’s decision to venture into the world—into a city, in Graciano’s words, of “blonde college students”—could not have been more fortuitous. She came under guidance of then Umeå director Roland Arnqvist and coach Andrée Jeglertz. Arnqvist, according to Bråstedt, provided a “social base” for the prodigy. The persistence of Odin Ramos Pinto Barbosa Ferreira, a native of the Cape Verde Islands and Portuguese speaker, had made the unlikely move possible. Marta would become acclimated with his help and that of his wife, Grethel, and daughter Joana, who also played at Umeå. The Sveriges Television production Marta—Pelés kusin (Marta—Pelé’s Cousin) shows how Marta was assisted in settling in—the documentary films her catching her first fish, something she would not have experienced in her hometown of Dois Riachos (meaning “Two Streams,” which are usually dry).

Prefiguring the dramatics of the recent October-to-January transfer negotiations (see timeline), orchestrated by high-powered agent Farah, those who remember Marta’s angst over the trek to Umeå tell Graciano of similar avoidance, silence, tears and, finally, faith in meu sonho (my dream).

Ferreira during his transatlantic calls communed often with Marta’s answering machine. He encountered and made allowances for Marta’s unpredictable temperament: “Throughout my life I have dealt with various women,” Ferreira tells Graciano, “but Marta was the most difficult, uh!”

To Jeglertz, whose tenure at Umeå corresponded to Marta’s—he has left to coach the men’s team at Djurgården—fell the job of introducing her to a professional training routine and integrating her into an accomplished side with a tactical plan. Umeå, on the strength of national-team stalwarts Malin Moström (at the club from 1995–2006) and Hanna Ljungberg, who has played for her hometown side since 1998, had won the previous year’s UEFA Women’s Cup.

Jeglertz also negotiated Marta’s capricious personality, which is demanding of her teammates on the pitch—and sometimes violent—yet easygoing, lithe, strumming a guitar and listening to beloved forró in leisure time. Jeglertz suspended her for one game last October for violating the “values and standards” of the club in a training incident. The club, after the Swedish Cup final in Oct 05, apologized on her behalf for punching Helén Fagerström in the face. Marta also said she was sorry for overreacting to a holding foul. Against LDB Malmö on 11 Jun 08, Marta kicked Emma Wilhelmsson in the stomach after a foul outside the penalty area. A second Malmö player shoved Marta to the turf, and a brief mêlée ensued. Referee Pernilla Larsson issued Marta a straight red. (Someone has distributed a video montage of the latter two incidents with sneering soundtrack.)

Tomas Ruuth

Ruuth

Tomas Ruuth, who has covered Umeå IK for local newspaper Västerbottens Folkblad, acknowledges in the podcast that Marta was “maybe a little bit hard to coach … but a player like Marta has to have a free role, so she’s able to do what she wants because, in the end, that’s what changes the matches and decides. That’s how she scores her goals.”

For Umeå she made stunning goals, 111 in 103 league games and 167 in all domestic and European competitions. “In little time I was able to enter into the rhythm of the game,” Marta tells Graciano of her rapid development, “but it felt very cold.” She was critical to Umeå’s 8–0 aggregate victory over FFC Frankfurt in the final of the 2004 UEFA Women’s Cup.

The numbers of goals and assists speak also to Marta’s physical condition. She has not suffered major injury, although, except for big international tournaments, combined demands of club and country have not been overwhelming. The physio for Brazil’s women’s team, Vinícius, in Graciano’s book describes Marta as having the ideal muscle structure for women’s soccer. “She has strength, speed, mobility and agility. Robinho possesses similar characteristics and biotype.”


Marta appears on O Globo’s Mais Você (Plus You) on 11 Dec 08. There are laughs and tears as the show airs clips of the Ronaldo v. Zidane charity match Nov 17, her hometown Dois Riachos, local side Centro Sportivo Alagoano and a 2006 parade in Maceió to honor her return after receiving her first FIFA World Player of the Year award. Everyone gets hugs, including host Ana Maria Braga and Louro José, the sidekick parrot who has his own blog. (© 2008 globo.com; 10:12)

Over time Marta penetrated the stereotypical reserve of the Scandinavian heart. As American girls did for Mia Hamm, klatches of pre-teens throughout the country sought Marta’s signature and wore her jersey, number 60—chosen to help the team’s major sponsor, Volkswagen, anticipate its 60th anniversary in Sweden.

“She’s loved,” says Bråstedt. “She doesn’t speak Swedish like a Swede, but we do understand her. She speaks a very charming Swedish, which we could see on television.”

The club estimated her marketing value at $8 million per year. In 2007, Umeå IK was among the most televised teams in Sweden, women’s or men’s. Earning a professional’s wage for the first time, Marta was able to realize material well-being far beyond the norm in Alagoas. She bought her first car, Graciano notes—a Fiat Palio—in Maceió in Jan 05. In March of the same year, she bought a three-room house for her mother, Dona Tereza, in Dois Riachos, next to a church.

“I live from football,” she says to Graciano. “My family depends on my wage.” In Brazil she had not had jewelry or makeup but in Sweden could earn money endorsing such products. She gave loyalty to a sponsor, Puma, as one reason for staying in Sweden despite a reported offer of $10,000 per month from FC Indiana (see 18 Jul 08)—some four times her initial earnings at Umeå. (By the close of her Umeå service, Marta reportedly made more than $200,000 annually, even after deducting Sweden’s hefty taxes.)

Intrusion of such numbers and the presence of Farah, whom many Umeå supporters, Bråstedt says, viewed as Marta’s niggardly overseer, made locals uncomfortable. One comment on the Damallsvenskan Newsblog (Nov 24)—the essential source for translating and interpreting each development in the transfer dealing—was representative of how jaded some fans became as the dirty business of negotiating player movements entered the idealized world of women’s football:

I am sick of this Marta bidding war. She wanted in the WPS, and now she wants to stay in Umeå; she demands that her “friend” to come with her to LA, now she demands to stay in Sweden … this just in, the Sol has put Marta on plane to LAX! Hang on—Marta said she loves Sweden and will die for her snowy step-motherland! WAIT! Newsflash! Marta just signed on WPS dotted line—STOP PRESS!—she nailed herself to Umeå’s town hall. No! OH MY GOD, Marta is DUE TO ARRIVE NEXT WEEK as long as she gets two million, 10 jet skis, two turtledoves, a beach house and unlimited supersize refills!

The effort to keep Marta in Sweden formed one aspect of the most intriguing transfer in the short history of professional women’s football. The club launched a “Rädda Marta” (Save Marta) plan and made a second contract offer in early December after Swedish media reported that Los Angeles Sol had backed out. Rivals Malmö even offered to help sweeten Umeå’s contract, such was her benefit to the Damallsvenskan. Farah was the bogeyman, doing his best for his client but alienating the club structure that did much to make Marta worthy of such sums.


The main Swedish sports program, writes Damallsvenskan Newsblog, opens with a Marta segment on Jan 13. Interviews with SVT football authority Glenn Strömberg, Jeglertz and WPS chief operating officer Mary Harvey, who played in the Swedish league in the 1990s. (© 2009 Sveriges Television; 4:51)

Both Bråstedt and Ruuth predicted, however, that ill feeling would fade once fans who packed the Gammliavallen, making the women better supported than the men’s team, reflected on Marta’s commitment and artistry that helped the side to the past four Swedish titles. Quietly, many may already have realized that she was “too large for Umeå,” in the words of Västerbottens Folkblad sports editor Niklas Westman. “Most of the people have been expecting this because of the money in the US and also that maybe she wants another challenge,” Ruuth says.

Most of the people think it’s remarkable that the best player in women’s football has been playing five years up here, up in the north of Sweden in a small town. Most people are happy for what she has achieved for Umeå and also for Swedish women’s football. I think that’s stronger than eventual bitterness over her leaving.

Adjusting to Los Angeles may be even more eventful than the earlier transition to the sub-Arctic. Now 22, Marta will realize that, while the Home Depot Center crowd may pound their thunder sticks for her samba moves, the learning curve will be steeper than in soccer cultures she has known. There will be less interest in her as a non-English-speaking player and as a female footballer than she became accustomed to in Sweden. As an early introduction to this phenomenon, the Los Angeles Times misspelled her name in announcing the anticipated transfer. Note to copy desk: It’s “Vieira” as in “Patrick Vieira.” Another uncertainty is whether British-born Abner Rogers, the Los Angeles coach who arrives without top-level experience, and staff will be able to further Marta’s tactical development.

She will play for arch-conservative Philip Anschutz and his Anschutz Entertainment Group that owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and developed Home Depot Center. AEG in 2001 acquired a 49 percent share in Stockholm club Hammarby Fotboll; it is also a stakeholder in two German ice hockey teams.

Culture shock hopefully will be smoothed by the presence of friend Johanna Frisk, signed by the Sol as a defender, and by connections with local Brazilians. She will have to negotiate the isolating effects of money and notoriety in a culture lacking the connectedness and spiritual resources of Alagoas or the Scandinavian town. Maybe hang out with Becks?

In Umeå her last footprints will disappear from the snowpack come April or May. Supporters may reference her words to Graciano about love: “I believe in love, but not in eternal love. Everything finishes one day.”

Even so, according to Ruuth, “she will be remembered.”

Sources

Jonny Hjelm and Eva Oloffson, “A Breakthrough: Women’s Football in Sweden,” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan, Sport in the Global Society (London: Frank Cass, 2004), 182–204; Diego Graciano, Você é mulher, Marta! (São Paulo: All Print, 2008).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] Player of the Year in 2008, all but confirmed as a Red Star (of course, the actual winner was Marta, already confirmed with the LA Sol). All I can say to that is: [...]

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