Can Brazil Produce Another Marta?

Like Jennifer Doyle, I have only questions about the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup from watching it so far.

And my main question so far is this: what has happened to Brazil women’s soccer?  Brazil crashed out in the first round at this World Cup. Well, to be fair, they didn’t exactly crash out: they came third in a group containing two countries very strong in women’s soccer, Sweden and North Korea (champions of the 2006 U-20 Women’s World Cup, and finalists in 2008).  But their only win came against New Zealand, who lost all three of their games.

This from the country that has produced in recent years Marta, Cristiane and Formiga, to name three of the best women’s players in the world over the past half-decade.

But it appears the development of women’s soccer in Brazil has completely stalled, from the available evidence. At the first U-17 Women’s World Cup held in 2008, Brazil finished bottom of their group, failing to win a game. Brazil did better at the 2008 U-20 Women’s World Cup, topping their group, then losing to a strong German side in the next round. Brazil finished third in 2006. The trend, though, is clearly one that’s gone dramatically downwards for Brazil in youth competition in the past few years.

The senior team, inspired by the remarkable crop of Marta, Cristiane, Formiga, Fabiana et al, had up to 2008 a remarkable record in recent years: silver at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, and second place at the 2007 World Cup. Seven of their 2008 Olympic team currently play in WPS, arguably the world’s leading professional women’s league.

Marta, Brazil

However, it appears that production line is stalling, judging from international youth results. Indeed, the problem perhaps is it’s not really a production line at all: women’s soccer in Brazil lacks any kind of structure, with no national league (hence why so many of their national team plays abroad), and a haphazard method of discovering young talent. And that talent has to overcome a considerable stigma against women participating in soccer, as the well-known story of Marta reminds us, from this interview with her from the New York Times last year:

“I had to do all of it by myself,” she said through a Portuguese interpreter. (She speaks Swedish fluently and, according to her new teammates, is rapidly picking up English.) “There wasn’t anybody for me to follow, or anyone to say to me, These are the steps you must take. First of all, I was almost always the only girl playing with boys in a small town. Some boys accepted me, some didn’t. And my family had comments made to them. Brazil is still a very macho society, and sports are mainly for boys, so people would say to them: What is this girl doing? Why is she always out there in the soccer games with the boys?”

And even Marta, four-time FIFA World Player of the Year, cannot seem to lead change in Brazil, with the authorities remaining resolutely opposed to supporting women’s soccer. As John Turnbull at the Global Game tells us:

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.”

Female soccer was banned entirely by law between 1964 and 1975 in Brazil.  Since then, the successful team led by Marta that developed from that point on, culminating in second place at the 2007 Women’s World Cup, ought to have presaged change, one would think: except that the Brazilian national women’s team, as far as I can tell, hasn’t actually played a game for around two years.

To see how poorly the national team is organised and treated in Brazil despite being one of the top three or four in the world, we can look back to a dispute following that 2007 World Cup, where the players felt they weren’t renumerated fairly for their performance that earned the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) almost $1 million in prize money. This resulted in the national team sending a collective letter to the CBF asking for support:

In the World Cup, for example, the Brazilian federation received $850,000 (US) from FIFA for the team’s second-place finish. The players say they are still unaware how much each of them will receive from that amount. The players are also demanding bonus money for their gold-medal finish at the Pan Am Games, which they say they still have not been paid. According to O Globo, it took two years for the 2004 Olympic team players to receive their bonus money for the silver medal at Athens.

The Brazil women are asking for a raise in their daily expense stipend from the current $35 (US) when playing abroad; a restoration of the team cook, a position that was left vacant at the start of the year as a cost-cutting measure (supposedly the absence of typical Brazilian foods like beans while the team were in China lengthened Formiga’s recovery time from leg cramps); and a greater number of matches for the national team, which currently has nothing scheduled until April.

At the conclusion of the letter, the players said that they have fulfilled their duty and have always given the maximum for the national team, Globo reports. The letter ends with the following phrase, in capital letters: “We need support”.

This raises a local and a broader point: more widely, once again there is evidence for why FIFA needs to pay players directly at the World Cup, to ensure they are paid on a fair and timely bass.

The local point is that the CBF, under Ricardo Teixeira’s corrupt leadership, is doing a remarkable disservice to one of the greatest women’s national teams of all time, missing a massive opportunity to use the starpower, skill and style of the likes of Marta to develop women’s soccer domestically in Brazil.

Brazil’s president Lula, following the World Cup pay dispute in 2007, made the same point:

“I think we have to prepare other matches. In other words, these girls can’t play only every four years or play now and then,” he said.

“I think these girls, who are not as valued as they should be by the entities that deal with women’s sports in Brazil, need to raise their heads and know that we are at the beginning a very long process and that they are valued, and have made Brazil proud.”

It appears, three years on, little has changed. Brazil’s top players are abroad; there is no domestic league (a national cup competition, Copa do Brasil de Futebol Feminino, has at least been created, upon FIFA’s request); and the Brazilian women’s national team is essentially disbanded aside from major tournaments (by wilson santiago). It may well reassemble and perform well at next year’s Women’s World Cup in Germany, given the talent it still has now, but how it will fair in the future given the lack of investment in the sport that is showing at youth international level is seriously open to question. This is a tremendous waste of an opportunity by the CBF (who are, unlike national associations in many countries, more than rich enough to be unable to claim poverty as an excuse for not developing the sport).

There is no doubt women’s soccer in Brazil has made extraordinary progress since the 1970s, when even playing the game was illegal for Brazilian women. Yet at the same time, Brazil risks falling behind the rest of the world as the next Marta still faces an uphill battle to play the game.

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