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stephanie nolen

Brazil's Marta Vieira da Silva is chased by Spain's Celia Jimenez, left, and Marta Corredera during a Group E match at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on June 13. In Brazil’s opening match against South Korea, Marta became the player to score the most goals in Women’s World Cup play.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP / Getty Images

Brazil needed a goal to solidify its lead over Korea in a tough first match in the Women's World Cup this past week.

And so when the team was awarded a penalty kick in the first minutes of the second half, the ball went, of course, to Marta.

The small but sturdy striker, captain of the Brazilian side, delivered the goal into the net with typical merciless efficiency, giving Brazil the 2-0 lead that would eventually win the game – and, when the ball thudded into the net, Marta Vieira da Silva became the player to score the most goals in Women's World Cup play.

International commentators made much of this, goal No. 15.

But the feat attracted almost no attention at home in Brazil.

Some Women's World Cup games are being broadcast on Brazilian cable channels – but no one appears to be watching.

Whenever the seleção, the Brazilian men's national team, plays, the sidewalks are jammed with fans gathered around screens, and even a routine matchup of club teams packs the sports bars and fills the airwaves with fevered commentary.

But no one is talking about the tournament under way in Canada – even though Brazil stands a chance of winning.

The national newspaper O Globo did not report on Marta's 15th World Cup goal the next day; coverage of a friendly game against Honduras by the national men's team, however, made the front page on Thursday. "It's a vicious circle," said Fernando Ferreira, who heads Pluri, Brazil's leading sports-development consultancy. "There is no interest from fans, so there is no interest from TV, so there is no interest for sponsors. It's hard to say which comes first. Maybe the fan comes first, because male football has a monopoly over the fan."

But Marco Aurelio Cunha, the co-ordinator for the women's game for the Confederation of Brazilian Football, said this may improve.

"Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on make-up. They go in the field in an elegant manner," he said in a telephone interview from Montreal, where he is accompanying the Brazilian side. "Women's football used to copy men's football. Even the jersey model, it was more masculine. We used to dress the girls as boys. So the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hair styles are more done up. It's not a woman dressed as a man."

Marta, as she is universally known, has a no-nonsense style that is not going to aid Cunha's agenda of aesthetic reform. She grew up getting chased away from boys' games, and left the country as a teenager to try to make a living playing soccer. Today she would be crazy to play here, says her agent Fabiano Farah.

"Football is a religion here, but this country has not been there for Marta: She'd never be recognized as one of the best players in the world if she had stayed in Brazil," he said. "Who's the most awarded football player in the world? It's a woman – but that answer is a bit awkward in Brazil."

Marta, 29, has won FIFA's trophy as top player five times, and been voted one of the top three in each of the past 11 years.

"If I was an athlete from a country like the U.S., that is strong in women's football, or even Sweden, or Germany, and I won the title of best player in the world five times, the attention I got would be much bigger," Marta told the Brazilian magazine TPM last year. "Probably, financially it would be very different as well. This is a reflection of the situation of women's football in Brazil, that still doesn't recognize its athletes."

Marta is from the town of Dois Riachos (pop. 11,000), in the dry north Brazilians call the sertão. She was born seven years after Brazil lifted its ban on women playing soccer, but her brothers beat her up when they caught her playing and her father strongly disapproved. At 14, friends from home who had moved to Rio sent word that one of the big clubs, Vasco da Gama, was having tryouts for a women's team, and Marta took the bus three days to get there.

"We put the first pair of cleats on her feet," said Helena Pacheco, who was her coach at Vasco. Her style was rooted in pickup games. "But the good thing about her is that she was determined, very engaged … The first Brazilian championship she went to, she was elected the best player. She was 15."

Marta began to send money home to her mother, Pacheco said – but this was not the beginning of a life of riches. Within three years, Vasco had scrapped its women's team; Marta was left to couch-surf as she played for teams in tiny towns.

Then she made the World Cup team in 2003 and a Swedish coach saw her play; he hunted down someone who spoke Portuguese to help him call her up and make her an offer. The girl from the dust bowl left Brazil at 17 bound for Sweden, where she played for the Umea Ik club team, in a city 190 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and led them to their league championship three times.

In 2009, she went to play in the United States – and had a reported $1.5-million (all currency U.S.) three-year contract in San Francisco. But that team failed, too, and she wound up back in Sweden.

Farah said she makes a reasonable living today (he declined to say how much) from endorsements for brands such as Coca-Cola and Puma, but a fraction of what male players earn. "Men who are even mediocre earn a lots of money. Look at what the third-string goalkeeper for Barcelona makes. How much does [Canadian captain Christine Sinclair] make, or Marta, compared to them?"

Ferreira, the consultant, said that Marta has personally helped boost interest in the women's game – "Brazilians like technique, and she brought that to women's football" – but there has been no matching effort from the federation. "The CBF doesn't give a damn," he said in Portuguese. "They say there are going to do this, they are going to do that, that they are going to change women's football. But CBF never did anything for women's football."

This week, the federation – which is deeply enmeshed in the corruption scandal now consuming FIFA – announced $15-million in new investment in the women's game, the share allotted to women from the $100-million legacy fund from the World Cup. It will go to build training programs, centres and hold more national competition, Cunha said.

But as Pacheco noted, the country is decades away from a real women's program, on the model of the United States. The CBF runs two national championships a year for women, but only five of the teams in it are professional (and their top players earn $1,000 a month at best). The rest of the teams are amateur, and the calendar for the national women's league shows a series of "game did not occur."

Pacheco has coached other players with even more talent than Marta, she said, but because they did not have the courage to leave the country, they are stuck working other jobs and playing in occasional matches.

The cultural view that this is a male game remains entrenched here. Children's soccer is divided by gender and almost exclusively offered to boys. It is exceedingly rare to see girls playing in school yards or on the beach. There are no soccer scholarships, the main route to professional pay for women in North America, and there is no national junior program for women.

Pacheco says the women playing for Brazil in Canada now will try hard, but she doubts they can win the Cup, because they have no resources behind them. "Even the coach they sent – he comes from the men's side, he doesn't know the players," she said.

Cunha defended the choice, however, saying it reflects the reality of the women's game in Brazil. "Well, get me a Brazilian astronaut to teach other astronauts here: It's the same thing. We don't have coaches, female coaches." (Pacheco was unpleasantly surprised to hear this assessment).

Brazil's Olympic Committee has high hopes for a medal in women's soccer when the Summer Games come to Rio de Janeiro next year. But Ferreira said that even that might make little difference. "For example, we had Guga [Gustavo Kuerten], he was a spectacular tennis player, who won things we could never imagine a Brazilian would win. And what did that do to tennis in Brazil? Nothing."

If Brazil makes the final game in Canada, there might be a sudden uptick in interest here, he said. "Journalists will go, cover the game, it will be on TV, and it will be on Fantastico [the flagship evening television program on the national network], and everyone will say, 'Now we are the country of women's football – we have to pay more attention to this, we have to invest,'" he predicted. "And then it will fade away. Because this is something you have to develop, you can't rely on spasms of great talent."

With reports from Manuela Andreoni.

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