Brazilian star Marta and her last chance at World Cup glory

The World Cup has been a major gap in the glittering resume of Marta Vieira da Silva’s 23-year career.

Sao Paulo, Brazil – If Marta comes off the bench and takes to the field for Brazil’s Women’s World Cup opener against Panama on Monday, it would mark her sixth and final involvement in the premier competition of women’s football.

Along with her six World Player of the Year awards, the remarkable feat is set to cement Marta’s place as one of – if not the greatest – women ever to play the sport. The major gap in the glittering resume of Marta Vieira da Silva’s 23-year career, however, is precisely a World Cup trophy.

Neither “Queen Marta” nor the Brazilian national team – so historically successful in the men’s game – have won a world championship, something the current squad hope to change this year in Australia and New Zealand.

Marta’s influence on women’s football in Brazil cannot be understated. The sport was illegal in the country until the mid-1980s, and Marta was Brazil’s first women’s football superstar.

Feb 18, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA; Brazil midfielder Marta (10) works the ball in front of Argentina midfielder Clarisa Huber
Marta (10) works the ball in front of Argentina midfielder Clarisa Huber [File: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters]

“After the ban, Marta’s importance and prestige as a global figure helped the game in Brazil,” explains Michelle Silva, women’s football expert and journalist at Brazilian sport radio station Esporte Band.

“Suddenly, the greatest ever women’s footballer was Brazilian. That’s huge for representation.”

Amanda Viana, women’s football pundit at Planeta Futebol Feminino, was a part of the first generation of Brazilians to be blown away by Marta’s talents. “I was in elementary school when Brazil’s women reached the Olympic final in 2004. The games were shown in the school canteen and I’d cut class to watch them,” she tells Al Jazeera.

“When I saw Marta breezing past her opponents, my eyes shone. She was spectacular. No one could get near her.”

But now, at 37 years old, Marta plays a decidedly different role in the Brazilian national team. She is unlikely to feature in the starting lineup against Panama, and it remains unclear exactly which function she will play during this World Cup.

“In her prime, her main attribute was her acceleration,” says Viana. “Over the years she’s lost that, and she’s had to adapt her game.”

Throughout her long career, Marta was lucky not to suffer serious injuries. That was until 2022, when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in April playing for her club side, Orlando Pride.

“She was out for an entire year,” says Viana. “It’s a really difficult injury to come back from.”

‘A magician’

With Brazil set to play Panama, France and Jamaica in its Group F matches, there is much discussion in Brazil as to how Marta will be used in the tournament. The best example of what today’s Marta can offer to the Brazilian national team, says Viana, came in this year’s SheBelieves Cup, the invitational friendly tournament hosted annually in the United States.

“In the group match against Japan, we were struggling to find the final pass to create clear chances,” Viana recalls. “Then Marta was brought on and she set up the winning goal.”

The general consensus among pundits is that this will be Marta’s role during the World Cup — a magician with an eye for the killer pass, to be used to unlock defences in the last 30 minutes of matches.

As such, if Brazil are to win the 2023 World Cup, the team will have to do so without Marta on the pitch for the majority of its matches.

“In years past, the major concern was that Brazil was completely reliant on Marta,” says Viana. “But now it’s clear we’re not dependent on her. We’ve played excellent games without Marta.”

One of these matches came in April, when Brazil took on European champions England in the Finalissima, a one-off intercontinental playoff between the best teams in Europe and South America.

A young Brazil side matched England for 90 minutes in Wembley, before losing in a penalty shootout. The current Brazil squad, assembled by Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, is a mix of an experienced spine and a quality young crop of players.

Trusted stalwarts Marta, Rafaelle, Tamires, Luana and Debinha are all over 30 years old, but the key of this squad lies with a pair of 23-year-old midfielders – Kerolin and Ary Borges, playing in their first World Cup.

‘Need to win their own star’

Brazil’s women’s team has traditionally struggled for recognition at home, with the reputation of the country’s historic men’s side setting expectations sky-high for a squad that struggles to compete with the culture and infrastructure of women’s football in the United States, the out-and-out favourites for this year’s World Cup.

In a symbolic gesture, Brazil’s women’s team has decided to remove the five stars from its jersey that denote the men’s team’s five World Cup titles.

“They want to write their own story,” explains Viana. “They need to win their own star. When they used the shirt with the five stars, they were won by a different team in different competitions.”

Official recognition for the women’s national team has come from Brazil’s federal government. During the first six months of his administration, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has promoted a series of actions seeking to increase the representation of traditionally marginalised groups in Brazil, including women.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hugs player Marta
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hugs player Marta during a meeting with the women’s soccer national team at the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia [File: Evaristo Sa/AFP]

This year, Lula’s government announced that Brazil will have optional holidays on the days the women’s national team plays its World Cup matches, a request from Sports Minister Ana Moser, herself a former player for the national volleyball team.”

“The measure is optional for every employee,” a spokesperson from Brazil’s Management Ministry tells Al Jazeera. “They can arrive to work up to two hours after the final whistle of Brazil’s matches.”

“It’s the same thing we do for Brazil’s games in the men’s World Cup. We want to ensure that women’s sports are being treated equally.”

Brazil begins its Group F campaign against Panama, before facing France and Jamaica. Qualification for the knockout stage is expected, while the squad’s target is to reach the semifinal. But this year, during Marta’s swan song, would be the perfect moment to go one step further and grab that first title.

“If Marta retires without winning the World Cup, then tough luck for the World Cup,” quips Silva. “But also we have to look at it as damning for Brazil. There are lessons to be taken from this.”

“Why did Brazil take so long to structure its women’s national team? If Marta retires without winning the World Cup, it’s not her fault, it’s because Brazil has failed her.”

Source: Al Jazeera