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On Sunday, Brazil's women's soccer team thrashed Sweden 5-1 in its second Olympic game – and Brazilian fans in the crowd broke out a new and heretical chant: "Marta is better than Neymar!"

They were invoking the Brazilian captain Marta Vieira da Silva (known universally here just as Marta), widely considered the best female player in the world, and comparing her to the captain of the men's side, Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. He, of course, goes by just Neymar, and vies for the title of best male player in the game.

That chant, and headlines the next morning calling Marta "the female Neymar," were intended as high praise. She played a gorgeous game and her team won, while Neymar and the men's team had played to a humiliating draw against weak South Africa in its Olympic opener.

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Neymar led his team back onto the field on Monday to face Iraq, possibly the worst team in the tournament. That game also ended in a draw, 0-0. Plenty of fans booed – but others had a new, and even simpler, chant: "Mar-ta! Mar-ta!" Take your multimillion-dollar contracts and your endorsements and go one back to Barcelona, the fans seemed to say to Neymar: This country has a new hero now.

The failure of the men's side, and the glorious soccer played by the women – this is the Olympic story Brazilians are talking about. The feverish debate and the disparity between the two teams suggest that this may be the moment when women's soccer, maybe even all women's sports, finally break through here.

"I've followed football all my life – men's football," said Adriano Cupello, a 35-year-old advertising executive who, on Sunday night, bemusedly found himself at home, watching the women. "Marta – she's amazing."

There is all kind of emotion tied up in Brazil's soccer competition at the Games. This is the country's beloved sport, of course, and while the men have won five World Cups, the Olympic gold medal has eluded them. And the last time Brazil hosted the world, for the 2014 World Cup, Brazilians confidently expected their men to win. Instead, they fell 7-1 to Germany in a semi-final game that was so abjectly humiliating that if you even begin to say the words "Seven to …" it still causes Brazilians to flinch.

Thus there are high stakes in Rio: Neymar was brought home from his club team in Barcelona to head a squad infused with fresh young players. But the men's side is fumbling and lacklustre, and Milly Lacombe, one of the few female sports commentators in Brazil, said that with the corruption-plagued and bloated Brazilian Football Confederation in charge, it isn't going to improve.

"Brazilian football, that style of play, it's finished, it's dead, with the men," Ms. Lacombe said. "Those who have saudades for Brazilian football need to watch the women: the samba, the dribble, the joy – it's still alive with the women," she added, using saudades, the Brazilian term for bittersweet nostalgia and longing.

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Soccer is a man's game, and a boy's, in Brazil. There are men's club games on TV every night of the week, men's league and pickup games in every park in the country, soccer schools for boys in every community and boy's games at recess at every school (as a kid, Ms. Lacombe was chased off the pitch by teachers).

The women's game is never broadcast, there is no national championship for women and neither Brazil's Ministry of Sports nor the Brazilian Football Confederation were able to provide statistics on the number of clubs, teams, leagues or schools for female players.

Maira Kubik, a professor of gender studies at Federal University of Bahia, said the only sports in which female competitors get much attention here are those in which women are hyperfeminine and sexualized – gymnastics, synchronized swimming or beach volleyball. But the Games could change this, she said, because they are being held here in Brazil, and because it's Brazil's female athletes who are excelling: Judoka Rafaela Silva won Brazil's first gold medal on Monday, and the women's gymnastics team is ranked a surprising third after the first day of competition.

Silvana Goellner, a historian who sits on the soccer confederation's new working group to build female soccer, said Brazil is still trying to get past the historical marginalization of women's competition. In the early 1940s, the proscriptive government of then-president Getulio Vargas banned women from playing soccer or other team sports. Women were encouraged to get exercise, Prof. Goellner said, but it had to be of the kind that "preserved their essential feminine characteristics."

The ban was lifted in 1979, but the way female athletes are valued hasn't evolved dramatically since then. "The media keep talking about the beauty of the athletes, their hair and nails," not their strength or skills, said Prof. Goellner, who teaches at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

Female competitors here must do at least twice the work men do, she said, and players such as Marta who want to compete as professional athletes must leave the country (she plays club soccer in Sweden).

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Prof. Kubik also pointed out that the invocation of Marta at the men's game isn't entirely about admiration for the women's captain. "It's also a way of humiliating the men – that's the male thing to say, 'Even the girls play better than you.'"

Ms. Lacombe said she fears that in a couple of weeks, when the Olympics are over, Brazil will forget its brief love affair with women's soccer even if the team wins gold: "They won't have sponsors, they won't be broadcast – they're fighting a very deep prejudice, all of society and the CBF. Their moment will come, but I don't think it will be now."

But that doesn't change the magic of this moment. "To hear a stadium of Brazilians chanting 'Marta' – it has to give you goosebumps," she said.

With files from Elisângela Mendonça

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