Queen Marta The Humble Kingdom of the World's Best Woman Soccer Player
Brazil's Marta is regarded as one of the most talented women to ever play soccer. During the upcoming Women's World Cup, she will bear the hope and pride of her booming country. But the modesty of her everyday life testifies to the massive gender divide in professional sports.
Marta is wearing a 1960s-style Brazilian national soccer team jersey, blue soccer cleats bearing her name, white socks and a blue, pleated skirt that reaches almost to her knees. She looks like a kid in an oversized carnival costume, though; her skirt is too big for her frame, and she has to use a barrette to gather up the loose jersey at her back.
The soccer player is walking across a gym near Elma, a town outside Buffalo, New York. She is surrounded by four women who have come from Brazil to photograph her for a glossy magazine. They're the ones who did her makeup, smoothed her hair and gave her this outfit to wear.
Marta tugs at the skirt and looks at her legs. She's a slender woman, just 1.62 meters tall (5' 4"). Though her feet are tiny, her legs are powerful. "Looks great," the stylist calls over to her as the other women nod. The photographer notes that she is known in Brazil as "Pelé in a skirt," in reference to the great soccer player from the '50s and '60s, the national hero.
Marta Vieira da Silva might very well be the best female soccer player of all time. The 25-year-old has been named FIFA World Player of the Year five times in as many years, or more than any other woman. The only thing Marta has yet to accomplish is to win a World Cup. But she'll get her chance this summer, when the Women's World Cup begins in Germany on June 26.
Determined to Beat Their Circumstances
There are currently two favorites for the tournament. The bigger one is the German team, which is considered nearly unbeatable after winning the last two tournaments. But the other one is Marta. She could be the star of the World Cup and prove that she deserves all the honors she's been given. If anyone can beat the Germans, it's Marta -- that's what her home country is expecting.
Still, Brazil isn't a country known for women's soccer. It doesn't even have a national league for women, and it only has a single tournament cup. In addition to Marta, two other members of the women's national team play for foreign clubs. If Brazil is a favorite in the upcoming World Cup, it's primarily thanks to Marta.
Four years ago, Marta came close to World Cup victory, but she botched a penalty kick in the final game against Germany, which went on to win the game. "Still, we were in the World Cup final for the first time," Marta says, adding that the time just wasn't right for a win.
When Marta hears that the German team has been training for the World Cup for weeks, she is amazed. She explains that doing so wouldn't be possible in Brazil even though they "always want to win." She sounds a bit defiant and says that this determination and talent is what sets Brazilian players apart.
A Beginning with Boys and without Shoes
The photographer lies down in front of Marta on the lawn in front of the gym. She asks Marta to jump into the air and raise her right fist the way Pelé often did. But then, Pelé didn't have to be careful about a skirt.
Then Marta heads back to the gym to pose for more pictures. In one, she has to bite the ear of a Mickey Mouse doll. But at least she gets to wear better-fitting jeans and a leather jacket now.
Marta joined the world of women's soccer 12 years ago. She was still a girl when she left Dois Riachos, her small hometown in northeastern Brazil. "I was the only girl there who played soccer," she says.
Marta talks quickly, almost in a rush, and she prefers Portuguese to English. Her voice is deep and throaty, and she sounds much older than she is. She has a slim, angular face and large eyes that change expressions as frequently as she changes moods.
She says she isn't interested in talking about herself anymore, that she's too exhausted. Then she suddenly asks: "Okay, the interview, can we do it right now?"
How did she start playing soccer? "I was seven," she answers. "With the boys, on the street, without shoes." The neighbors talked about her, and her brothers were annoyed. Though her mother worried, she still didn't forbid her daughter from playing. When she was 14, Marta took a bus to Rio de Janeiro, tried out for a team and stayed.
"I live where I can play, where I can improve," she says, adding that it's always been that way. She sounds almost annoyed again at having to explain her life any further.