Marta: Pele in skirts
The marvelous young women's star breaks into the old boys' club of Brazilian soccer legends
Make no mistake about it, Brazilian women's soccer star Marta is a marvel to watch.
The reigning two-time FIFA women's world player of the year can score goals, dictate the pace of a game with her visionary playmaking skills and bamboozle opposing defenders with her wizard-like ball control.
But Brazilian coach Jorge Barcellos maintains Marta's greatest asset is the intelligence she displays on the field. Hers is a fertile soccer mind.
Not your average player
"Marta is very fast and has excellent decision-making ability. … She's able to solve problems on the field that others can't even see," Barcellos recently told CBCSports.ca.
What's more, the 22-year-old star, who plays for Swedish club Umea IK, has a solid head on her shoulders, refusing to read her press clippings or take advantage of her celebrity.
"Marta stands out off the field, as well as on the field. She doesn't like to be treated as a star player; she likes to be treated like every other player on the team. She's a sincere person," Barcellos said.
That she's able to stay so grounded is a testament to her character, especially in a country such as Brazil that elevates its soccer stars to God-like figures.
If soccer can be considered a religion in Brazil, then Rio de Janeiro's Estadio do Maracana is the cathedral, the spiritual home of its greatest saints.
The world-famous stadium has seen some of the game's legendary stars tread its hollowed halls out onto the field, but only a select few have been inducted into Maracana's walk of fame — Ronaldo, Romario, Zico, Garrincha and, of course, Pele.
The walk of fame was an old boys' club. But that changed last summer when Marta, following her command performance at the Pan American Games in Rio, became the first woman to leave her concrete imprints in the stadium's walkway, taking her rightful place alongside the giants of the sport.
Showcasing a dazzling array of talents — imaginative attacking, pinpoint passing, a cannon-like shot — Marta simply dominated the competition, scoring a tournament-high 12 of her team's 33 goals as Brazil won all seven of its matches en route to capturing the gold medal.
Marta earns respect of Brazilians
Brazil's 5-0 thrashing of the United States in the final (Marta had two goals and two assists) in front of 70,000 fans at Maracana proved to be a turning point in the women's game, the brilliance of Marta and her teammates helping to generate some much-needed buzz in Brazil, which has been relatively slow to embrace women's soccer.
"We showed to the country what women's soccer can do, what potential it has," Marta said in a post-gold medal match press conference. "Of course there is prejudice [in Brazil], and that makes things much more difficult for women, not only in soccer but many other sports. We are trying to find our place."
Marta's performance did not go unnoticed by Pele. The undisputed king of soccer was sufficiently moved by her play at the Pan American Games that he placed a congratulatory phone call to the woman some took to calling "Pele in skirts."
"Actually it was my assistant, Pepito, who made the comparison. And I agree," Pele said of the woman who sports his No. 10 on her back.
Marta followed up her stupendous showing at the Pan American Games with another spectacular performance three months later at the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup in China, She scored a tournament-leading seven goals and won the Golden Ball award as the competition's MVP, despite Brazil's 2-0 loss to Germany in the final.
From humble beginnings
Marta began her ascension to the top of the women's game like millions of Brazilian kids before her — by learning the game on the streets.
Born and raised in the small town of Dois Riachos in northeastern Brazil, Marta used to play in pickup games against local boys who tried to slow her down by hacking at her ankles as she attempted to dribble by them.
Marta left home when she was 16 to try her luck with Vasco da Gama's women's team, and the Rio club quickly signed her.
Within two years she was playing for Brazil's under-19 squad before graduating to the senior national team. This gave her the chance to represent her country in international competitions, including the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup and the 2004 Athens Olympics where Brazil won a silver medal.
Since 2004, Marta has played in with Umea IK, helping the Swedish club win three consecutive league championships, and winning the FIFA women's world player of the year award in 2006 and 2007.
Despite winning personal accolades, losses in the finals of the 2004 Olympics and last year's World Cup in China still rankle. But Marta has a chance to redeem herself by leading the Brazilian team, nicknamed As Canarinhas (The Female Canaries), to glory in Beijing.
"The team is certainly stronger now and better prepared psychologically to play in a final," Marta said.