Marta Vieira da Silva, better known as just Marta, is celebrated as one of the best players in the history of women’s soccer. Now the 30-year-old star will lead Brazil’s squad in the upcoming Rio Olympics, seeking to win her team’s first gold medal.
It would join a full shelf of honors already awarded to Marta. FIFA named her as the female World Player of the Year five years in a row, from 2006 to 2010. At age 20, she was the youngest woman to ever win that prestigious award.
The legendary Pelé, often dubbed the greatest soccer player ever, has described Marta as “Pelé with a skirt.” In 2015, Marta scored her 98th goal for the Brazilian national team, surpassing Pelé’s own record of 95 goals for the national team during his career. Playing for such teams as Santos in Brazil, Umeå IK in Sweden, and Los Angeles Sol, FC Gold Pride and Western New York Flash in the U.S., she has been hailed for her imagination as well as her skill — and is often described as an artist on the field.
When she was 18 years old, Marta was on the Brazilian team that landed a silver medal in Athens. It was just the third time women had competed in soccer at the Olympics and the first medal for Brazil’s women’s team. Four years later in Beijing, she helped the team win another silver medal.
“I suffered a lot of prejudice and I heard a lot of nonsense.”
But success and stardom were not always part of the equation. Marta grew up poor near Dois Riachos in the northeast state of Alagoas.
“I first attended school when I was 9 years old. Although it was a public school, my mother didn’t have the money to buy school supplies. We didn’t have anything at home. We only had candy or a soda when we visited a better-off relative,” Marta told Brazil’s TPM Magazine in 2014.
But she had already started playing soccer, from age 7 or 8. “I played with the boys out on the street without shoes. I was the only girl, and every time I played, I had to try something so that I could be better,” she told The Olympic Review in 2012.
Sexism dogged her footsteps from an early age. “I suffered a lot of prejudice and I heard a lot of nonsense,” Marta told the group Street Football World earlier this year.
“Some people said I couldn’t play because I was a woman. Others called me a masculine woman. That hurt a lot. I was a kid and had to listen to all that bullshit. But they put up with me because, in the field, I made a difference,” she said.
Even as fans and competitors have marveled at her skill and showmanship, Marta has not had a smooth ride. She has often struggled to find a club to sign her. Seven of the eight teams she joined over the past several years, including Vasco da Gama in Brazil, Los Angeles Sol and F.C. Gold Pride, went bankrupt, repeatedly leaving her without a job. Currently, she plays for FC Rosengård in Sweden.
Back home in Brazil, there is a marked lack of support for female soccer professionals, who are paid the equivalent of minimum wage.
“And if Marta struggles, you have to believe that women’s soccer has yet, even in 2011, to be fully accepted in the sport that remains very much a man’s world,” sports writer Rob Hughes wrote in The New York Times in 2011.
Speaking with TPM Magazine in 2014, Marta said that she dreams of the day when female footballers will be as well-recognized and as beloved as, say, male Brazilian superstar Neymar.
There is a long way to go. Bloomberg reported that Marta earned about $190,000 a year when she played for the Swedish team Tyresoe in 2013 ― a figure comparable to maybe one week’s pay for Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
Playing with the national team in one more Olympic Games has been a dream of Marta’s. When she was featured in the Olympic Athlete Profiles video series in 2014, she said that competing in Rio was one of her late-career goals.
Teammate Cristiane Rozeira told FIFA.com this month that after two silvers, the Brazilian team is “obliged” to win gold in their home country.
In a recent interview, Marta was careful not to sound overconfident. “We almost won the gold medal in 2008, so now we will do our best,” she told Brazilian news site UOL.
The Brazilian team has drawn a challenging group for the Rio Olympics, where they will face Sweden, China and South Africa in the initial round. But those games should be a good chance for Marta to unleash her world-class skills before a global audience ― and perhaps grab that elusive gold.
A version of this piece was originally published on HuffPost Brazil. It has been translated into English and adapted for a U.S. audience.
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