06/24/2011 05:46 PM

Queen Marta

The Humble Kingdom of the World's Best Woman Soccer Player

By Wiebke Hollersen

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.

A Nomadic Existence

Two weeks before her 18th birthday, Marta moved to a Swedish city near the Arctic Circle, where she had landed a contract with a club called Umeå IK. When she arrived, it was summer in Brazil and winter in Sweden. She'd never seen snow, but now it was everywhere. She wondered if people really played soccer there.

It all started in Sweden, Marta says. That's where she learned to live on her own and to take better care of herself. She stayed there for five years; during that time, her club won the championship four times. She learned Swedish, made a lot of friends and had a good life. When she talks about Sweden, her countenance grows softer.

But now she's here, in the western part of New York State, where she's been playing for a club called Western New York Flash since the spring. Niagara Falls isn't far away, and the countryside is flat and green. The club's owner, Joe Sahlen, also owns a meat-packing company in Buffalo.

This is Marta's third club since coming to the United States about two years ago. At that point, a new, professional women's league was just starting up in the United States, and it needed players like her to make it big. That's what she left Sweden for, though it wasn't an easy decision.

Different Types of Appreciation

As the women from the photographer's team break down their equipment, a cameraman from a Brazilian sports broadcaster is already waiting. The club's coach notes that the local media hardly paid any attention to it before Marta arrived.

Marta shows the TV reporter around and tells him that her idols are star Brazilian players Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, and that her agent in Brazil also represents Ronaldo, the recently retired Brazilian soccer legend. The man asks how she gets along with Ronaldo. He wants to talk about famous soccer players, about the men; but Marta replies that, despite sharing an agent, she hardly knows him.

When the man shuts off his camera, Marta picks up her backpack, heads out to her car and drives home to Orchard Park, another suburb of Buffalo, where the club keeps apartments for its players. Marta shares hers with Maurine, another Brazilian.

The next afternoon, Marta and the others are back in front of the gym, waiting for the bus. Each home game is more like an away game for the team; since they don't have their own stadium in Buffalo, they have to play an in Rochester, an hour's drive away. There, the bus parks next to a prefab trailer on the edge of a shallow stadium. This is where their locker rooms are. For bathrooms, the players use portable toilets in the parking lot.

Today, the Western New York Flash is playing a club called magicJack from Boca Raton, Florida. Inside, the stadium looks like it is supposed to host a huge party for kids complete with disco music, soccer bingo and face painting. There are lots of girls here. In the United States, soccer is their sport. They cheer as Marta jogs onto the field.

When the Major League Seems Minor

Club owner Joe Sahlen sits up in the stands in an air-conditioned box with leather armchairs and a built-in kitchen. Baseball is playing on a flat-screen TV. Sahlen got interested in soccer when his daughter Alexandra started playing as a child. Now 28, Alexandra is on the bench down below, playing on Marta's team.

Still, it might be more accurate to say that Marta plays on her team. Not only does her father own the team; her husband, Aaran Lines, is the team's coach. Lines played for New Zealand's national team and on the reserve team for Werder Bremen, a team in Germany's premier league. The family launched the Western New York Flash three years ago and, last year, they decided to move up to the Women's Professional Soccer league, the highest level for women's soccer in the United States.

So far, the new women's league in the United States hasn't exactly been a smash success so far. At one time or another, there have been a total of 11 teams, but there are only six now.

In January, Sahlen asked his son-in-law what he thought of Marta. At that point, Marta was in Brazil. She had her fifth Player of the Year trophy -- but no real job. Marta's first and second clubs each ended the season at the top of the league, only to go bankrupt. Now she's playing for Joe Sahlen. "It's better to have her on the team than to play against her," he says.

Half the women down on the field are national team players, and many of them will travel to play in the Women's World Cup. The stadium is more than half full, with 8,076 spectators, and the fans are excited. Only three games in the league have drawn a larger crowd. As is the case in Germany, there don't seem to be many people in the US who are interested in watching women's soccer.

It isn't a bad game; it's fast-paced, though somewhat old-fashioned. Marta has a defensive player on her at nearly all moments, a woman a head taller than she is, playing man defense. However, when she manages to elude her defender, Marta's talent shines through. She has unexpected ideas -- but, unfortunately, the people not expecting them are sometimes her teammates.

More than Talented

Joe Sahlen looks satisfied. "The product is good," he comments. It's a phrase he often uses. Sometimes the product is his team; sometimes it's women's soccer in general. He most likely says the same thing when talking about his company's sausages.

Sahlen, 58, is a wiry man with a leathery face, and he seems to be dressed as his own mascot: There's a company logo on the sunshade above his head, a company logo on his polo shirt, and his sneakers bear the company colors. He heads a company that has been selling ham, turkey breasts and hotdogs for four generations. His other hobby is driving racecars. The only thing he doesn't seem to like to do is talk.

When asked if it was hard to get Marta, Sahlen simply replies that she was "expensive." Though the club won't say just how expensive, Marta has reportedly had annual earnings of half a million dollars since she started playing in the United States. That makes her the highest-paid female soccer player in the world.

When asked if the investment was worth it, Sahlen answers that it's too soon to tell. "A few more goals and we're good, " he says. Sahlen sits down on the bleachers in front of his box. When Marta has the ball, he yells: "Okay, let's go, Marty." Without men like Sahlen, this small but professional league probably wouldn't exist.

Marta's team wins 3-0. Though Marta didn't score a goal, she was the victim of a foul that set up a scoring penalty kick. After the game, she jumps around the field, pulling up her jersey to show a scrape on her hip. "No matter how hard they go after me, I never give up," she yells. Then she laughs as if she's won a trophy. None of her teammates are as keyed up as she is. Indeed, it's not just talent that sets Marta apart.

No Time for Doubt

The team has the Monday after the game off, and only Marta is back at the gym. Camera teams and photographers from Brazil are there again. The World Cup is starting soon, and they want time with their star. Marta sits down at a table near the entrance, suddenly in a talkative mood. She brings coffee to the table and quickly downs two cups. She's wearing a United Nations T-shirt; she'll soon be making a trip to Africa on the organization's behalf.

When asked what she does on her days off when she doesn't go to the gym, she says she plays tennis, practices guitar or talks with her family in Brazil over Skype. These are things she can do almost anywhere, hobbies that fit with her lifestyle and the many times she's had to change places. She misses Sweden, she says, and she's planning to visit friends there soon.

Marta admits that it's not so great and "a little frustrating" to have to start over every year, as she's been doing recently. She also finds it a shame that the American league is so small. But, she says, the clubs that do exist are good, and every game is a challenge. The interview is almost over, and there's no time for doubts.

Queen Marta

Last January, Marta stood onstage in Zurich at the gala held to honor the male and female recipients of the Player of the Year award. Wearing a white dress, she stood next to Lionel Messi. Messi received the award for the second year in a row, Marta for the fifth. Perhaps she'll soon be able to add "world champion" to her credentials. Perhaps she can beat Germany.

Still, that wouldn't change much. Marta could win the Women's World Cup 10 times over, but she'd still be playing a different sport than the one the men play. Her sport isn't a massive global business; instead, it's more of a glorified hobby. Some 100 million people around the world recently watched Messi and FC Barcelona win the Champions League, but Marta is shooting goals for a hotdog manufacturer.

In Brazil, though, they're building a monument to the determined girl from Dois Riachos. It will be in Maceió, the capital of Alagoas, the state in which Marta grew up. She was recently there for a tryout at "King Pelé" stadium. The monument, which is more of a small museum, will be inside the stadium. "They'll have my pictures, my videos and my trophies," she explains, "so people can learn something about me."

Her mother was there with her, and she cried when they showed Marta the blueprints. The monument will open in December. It will be called "Queen Marta."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission