Arguably the most recognisable name in women’s football, Marta, is to Brazil what Lionel Messi is to Argentina. The 29-year-old striker has been terrorising defences for well over a decade, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award five consecutive times from 2006 to 2010.
She is the joint all-time goal-scoring leader in World Cups (14), has won six Swedish league titles and two WPS Championships in the United States, and has two Olympic silver medals. But like Messi, Marta is still chasing a first World Cup trophy.
She has competed in three – USA 2003, China 2007 and Germany 2011 – and came close to guiding Brazil to glory in her second attempt but the Selecao fell just short, losing to Germany 2-0 in the final in Shanghai.
Next month, she’ll launch another assault on World Cup glory when she joins As Canarinhas in Canada (starts June 6) – a place that is quite significant to her.
“The expectations I have are very good because my first tournament for the Brazil national team was in Canada in 2002 with the Under-19 team and it went great (they lost in the semis to the hosts),” says Marta on the sidelines of the International Conference on Sport for Women in Abu Dhabi.
“The Canadians they’re very competitive, they’re a country that really embrace women’s football. I think exposure-wise, there will be greater coverage, not just for the Brazilian team but on a more global scale. I think women’s football has taken a major step forward and we will see that this year in terms of coverage.”
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Marta, who has scored 79 goals in 91 appearances for Brazil, has seen several generations come and go during her tenure but she’s hopeful the current young crop of talent can go far in Canada.
“In 2007, we were a team that had been playing together for three years, since 2004. It was the same masterpiece, technically-speaking,” she says.
“The team today in Brazil is a different team with different players, young players, so really my expectations and hopes are that we’ll find the right chemistry, the right feeling together on the pitch so we can come up with the best result possible. We’re going there to win.”
After last year’s disastrous ending to Brazil’s World Cup campaign, when the hosts suffered an embarrassing 7-1 defeat to Germany, the football-mad country is desperate for some good news and will hope the women can succeed where the men failed miserably. But Marta insists there is no extra pressure to make up for last year’s heartbreak.
“I don’t see it as extra pressure because I’m used to it,” she explains. “I’m very competitive and throughout my life the biggest pressure has been the one I place on myself.
“In Brazil, there is this common feeling that we always need to be first, so besides myself being competitive, Brazil is just as competitive. So this is something that is very normal for me.
"I want to take the advantage of playing the World Cup for my country, for my national team, and use this to make us very competitive for the Olympics. So it’s an extra advantage not extra pressure to do well and bring the gold medal for Brazil.”
Indeed, Olympic gold at next year’s Games in Rio de Janeiro seems like an even greater goal for Marta and her team-mates. The Brazilian recalls beating the United States in front of 70,000 fans in the final of the Pan American Games at the iconic Maracana and considers it one of the most special moments of her career.
She dreams of a similar scenario next year at her home Olympics but Marta also believes the Games will mean much more to her than simply winning or losing a medal.
“The most important thing I hope for the Olympics next year is that we can use it as a platform to really reduce the gap of gender inequality.
"I believe it’s really important to use the benefits or the mobilisation, the strength of the event, of the popularity, of the visibility to really reduce this gap and to really promote gender equality,” says Marta, who was ranked No7 on Sport Illustrated’s list of Top 20 Female Athletes of the Decade.
“The difference between now and 2007 when the Pan American Games were held in Rio de Janeiro is that people didn’t even know that the Brazilian national women’s team existed.
“I think today people really watch, they like the women’s national team, people support it in Brazil, it’s become popular. My expectations are the best possible because it won’t only be one match where we have 70,000 people supporting us in the stadium, I think it’ll be like that from the first match until I hope the final.”
Marta has always been an advocate for women’s sport and she believes media coverage and sponsorship must simultaneously increase in order for women’s football to get the attention it deserves.
She left home when she was just 14 years old to pursue a career in football and she cites the lack of support as both a major challenge yet necessary fuel that propelled her to where she is today.
“Being myself very competitive, probably the lack of support, people not believing that I could be someone and do something, was the right fuel that really made me stronger and really motivated me to overcome all the lack of support, all the discrimination, all the people not believing,” she says.
“I told myself ‘since I’m a warrior in my personal life, I’m going to take this as a fuel, as something important to motivate me to be a professional and have a decent life off the pitch.”
Marta has indeed created an incredible life for herself through football. But that determination also forced her to live away from her home and her family.
Besides Brazil, she has played for several clubs in the United States and Sweden – a country she considers her second home and where she currently plays for FC Rosengard.
“In Brazil, even though football is like a religion, women’s football isn’t professionally developed in terms of infrastructure,” she admits.
“That’s the biggest difference I felt because there was never support in my country for me to play and live through football like men can do. I love Sweden. It really helped me become the person I am today. It helped me build my character, my personality."