‘Do other Martas exist?’ | In ‘machista’ Brazilian culture, one cannot be sure

A young Flamengo fan in the Maracanã celebrates Marta’s exploits at the Pan American Games in July. The sign reads, with reference to the Rio-based scarlet-and-black, “Marta in the Mengão is the solution.” (© 2007 Infoglobo S/A)

Rio de Janeiro | Late last year we spent several days compiling a sketchy life history of Brazil’s superior playmaking talent Marta Vieira da Silva (28 Dec 06). For our impressions we relied mainly on a Swedish documentary, Marta, Pelés kusin (Marta, Pelé’s Cousin), that featured dialogue in Portuguese and subtitles in Swedish. Such is the sparseness of the English-language record.

Little did we know that Marta, 21, has her own biographer—Argentine journalist Diego Graciano, who since 2004 has been assembling the story of Brazil’s greatest female player and a potentially galvanizing figure in lifting women’s status in her country. With her exploits in the cathedral of Brazilian futebol in July, leading the team to a Pan American Games gold medal with 12 goals and having her footprints calcified in the Maracanã’s Walk of Fame (25 Jul 07), she pushed herself into Brazil’s male-dominated sporting consciousness. (Click the link below to hear an account, in Brazilian radio broadcasting’s signature reverb, of the side’s fourth goal in the Jul 26 final, a 5–0 victory over the U.S. U-20 team. Marta scores on a spot kick.)

To find interest in his book, however, Graciano may have to rely on another superhuman performance from Marta in China and a Brazilian championship. As it stands, as Graciano writes in a recent e-mail interview (see below), “[T]here is not much interest from Brazilian publishers in having her life in their collections.” Marta and her teammates have been advocating for a Brazilian league, but they are battling institutional inertia and a history that banned soccer for women until 1979. The federal government beginning in the 1980s limited sponsorship opportunities for women and prevented their competitions from being held at athletic grounds, consigning them to, in many cases, the beaches in Rio.

Copacabana Beach, in fact, in 1981 served as the venue for the first women’s tournament. The strongest women’s side through much of the 1980s, Esporte Clube Radar, used the beach as its home ground. Opposition to women playing football has been constant. The challenges range from the physical—Marta reports that her brother hit her when he found she was playing, and BBC columnist Tim Vickery‘s girlfriend says she got similar lashings from her father (BBC Sport, Sept 10)—to the subtly patronizing gender stereotypes that frame women, in the main, as an object of the male gaze or as devoted disciples of home and church.

“Today, when I came into the field, I heard a guy say that I should be at a laundry sink, washing clothes,” said a Radar player in 1984. “But I did not bother to reply to him, although I was angry. My reaction came later, with the ball at my feet.”

Writing in 1983, Janet Lever witnesses the stirrings of interest in women’s soccer and sees the game as a social agent for starting to break down the “sexual apartheid” characterizing Brazilian society. She notices the large numbers of women who wager in the national sport lottery, yet comments that the women did not yet feel welcome as spectators:

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