The moniker “Pelé in skirts” would seem a little hyperbolic were it not endorsed by Pelé himself. When the legendary footballer called to congratulate fellow forward Marta Vieira da Silva on her performance at the 2007 Pan-American Games, it cemented her position in the pantheon of Brazilian football heroes. Marta’s game—like Pelé’s—is Brazilian football: quick, explosive, and exhibiting the impeccable ball control that comes from a childhood spent playing in the streets and in the country’s ubiquitous enclosed concrete courts.
The taunts didn’t stop her
She also shares the narrative so common to male Brazilian footballers, of rising to stardom from humble origins. One of four children raised by a single mother, Marta grew up in the small town of Dois Riachos in the northeast of Brazil. Like the neighborhood boys, she played street football as a child but like the neighborhood girls (and most girls in the country), she was discouraged from participating. The taunts didn’t stop her, and she would rise through the ranks of the women’s team associated with Rio’s Vasco de Gama club. The following year, Vasco dissolved its women’s side, but Marta was on her way with or without them. Since then, she has played for numerous professional clubs in her country and abroad, and has starred for the Brazilian women’s national team, becoming a World Cup and Olympic medalist, a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, and an international icon.
As striking as Marta’s story is, her success is even more striking in the context of her country. In the land of the jogo bonito, women still face immense hurdles to simply participating in the sport, let alone achieving recognition for their footballing talent.
Marta de Vieira da Silva.
Women have long been actively disenfranchised from the football fields of Brazil. When the sport was initially introduced to Brazil in the late 19th century, it was an aristocratic pursuit. Around the turn of the century, teams began to allow black players, and then women, who took up the sport enthusiastically and in large numbers. By the 1940s there were around 40 women’s teams in Rio alone, but in 1941, under the advisement of the Minister of Education and Health, the National Sports Council decreed that women be banned from the sport. Football, the directive suggested, was “incompatible with the condition of their nature.”
It took 38 years for the ban to be lifted. In the almost four decades of prohibition, more was lost than just practice time. Brazil’s legendary football culture developed without the involvement and inclusion of women. While Marta may be a household name, women’s football in Brazil still suffers from neglect and disinterest.