Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Leticia Lisieux Andrade Dos Santos skilfully dribbled the ball, cutting between defenders before making a strong pass that landed directly at the foot of her sprinting team-mate. Running up and down the futsal (indoor football) court, Dos Santos frustrated her opponents and led her team to a 6-3 win.
“Do you know why Marta [Vieira da Silva, star of Brazil’s women’s national team] was ranked the best in the world five times?” the 26-year-old asked a few minutes after the game, a smirk forming on her lips. “It’s because nobody knows who I am.”
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After a childhood of kicking the ball in the streets of Rio, Dos Santos started to play organised football 12 years ago.
When she was 16, her team played in a tournament organised by the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), the country’s top official football body. Though the players made it to the finals – and had a chance to be noticed by scouts – another team took their spot. “It was the greatest disappointment in my life,” she told Al Jazeera.
She now plays for Branca’s, a collective of about three dozen female players, most aged between 12 and 30, and competes in games and tournaments around the city.
“I have the ability to be a professional football player, but not the opportunity. It was my dream, but not anymore,” she said, explaining that she is now studying physical education. “Now I just play because I like it – and until someone sees me and I can go abroad.”
FIFA, international football’s governing body, estimates that 29 million women and girls play the sport, and that 12 percent of all youth players are female.
While Brazil is home to about 400,000 women players, and the Selecao women’s national team has won tournaments at the highest levels, decades of government-imposed restrictions and a male-dominated culture have left little local support for Brazil’s women footballers.
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In 1941, a Brazilian law made it illegal for women to play sports that were against their “nature”. This ban extended to football, beach football (beasal), water polo, rugby, baseball, and weight-lifting, among other sports, according to Mariane Pisani, a researcher on women’s football in Brazil.
“The history of sport in Brazil is closely bound to our nation’s political situation,” said Pisani, pointing specifically to the period starting with Estado Novo (the “New State”, under President Getulio Vargas between 1937 and 1945), lasting until the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985.
“In those years, there was a popular conception that sport and nation were bound: In the project of a [victorious] nation, female Brazilians were essentially born to be good mothers and a good wives, so they couldn’t be sportswoman,” she told Al Jazeera.
While the government lifted the ban on women’s football in 1979, the impact of the ban remains, as many players face deep-seated discrimination and pressure to stay off the pitch. Players are sometimes referred to as sapatao (big shoes), a slur implying that they are lesbians, or mannish.
A 2006 survey found that about 57 percent of Brazilian women football players aged 16 to 21 said prejudice was their primary cause of stress, while 50 percent of players between the ages of 22 and 27 said the same.
‘People don’t believe in women’s football’
A lack of media attention and public support also translates into lower investment and fewer opportunities to compete. According to CBF, 84 women’s teams were registered for the 2013 professional season, compared to 229 men’s teams.
“We don’t allow women to have any voice in our game,” said Jorge Dorfman Knijnik, a professor at the University of Western Sydney specialising in gender and sport, and the author of the 2006 survey.
Knijnik told Al Jazeera that there has been an improvement at the beginner’s level: More girls are starting to play football at a younger age, most often in school, or with boys’ teams. But they struggle to get support at more competitive levels. “Most of the players don’t have a job, or have gone abroad because there is [nowhere] for them to play in Brazil,” he said.
Hilda Hindriches, the coach and founder of the Branca’s project women’s teams, said she urges her players to focus on their studies and not to rely solely on football. “The biggest challenge is that people don’t believe in women’s football in Brazil,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The main thing I tell the players is that they can’t just invest in football alone. They have to be studying… they have to know that they can’t live off football alone in Brazil.”
Today, several initiatives are taking on these challenges and urging major reforms.
Eduardo Tacto is president of the National Association of Women’s Football, a grassroots umbrella group formed two years ago that organises women’s teams and tournaments and advocates for more investment. The association now includes 200 teams across several Brazilian states.
is maybe the most unlikely path to take, and that’s what fascinates me about it.”]
Tacto said that divorcing female and male football – the CBF controls both, and several women’s teams are affiliated with men’s clubs, while many tournaments are jointly organised – will be crucial for the success of women’s football going forward.
“There is no confederation of Brazilian football [exclusively] for women… so women’s football gets forgotten,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s going to be up to the next generation to create a strong investment in women’s football, and then that generation could actually potentially rise to a competitive level.”
Another organisation is Guerreiras, a group of footballers, academics, and activists that organises trainings and exhibitions in communities around Rio, and tries to use sport to create discussions around gender norms and stereotypes.
“Guerreiras translates to ‘female warriors’. A lot of female players identify with this word, because of the struggle to play this game,” said Caitlin Fisher, who co-founded the group with Aline Pellegrino, the former captain of the Brazilian women’s national team.
|Ingrid Albernaz [Jillian Kestler D’Amours/Al Jazeera]
Fisher came to Brazil after graduating from college in the United States in 2004. She played for Santos – the Sao Paulo-area club that Brazilian great Pele once led – before going to play professionally in Sweden and back in the US. In 2010, after returning to Brazil to conduct gender studies research, the idea for Guerreiras was born.
“Just the mere presence of a female player with talent and skill that nutmegs one of the guy players and scores a goal,” Fisher said, “that can shift the way somebody thinks about the potential of a woman on the field in this traditionally male sport”.
And for many young players, these small victories are often a source of motivation. “I was always the different girl; I was the one who played football,” said Ingrid Albernaz, a 17-year-old high school senior who plays for Criciuma, a team Tacto coaches in the National Association of Women’s Football.
“I like football because it’s different.” she told Al Jazeera. “As a girl, it’s maybe the most unlikely path to take, and that’s what fascinates me about it.”
Follow Jillian Kestler-D’Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours