Talent not enough for Brazil

Updated: June 27, 2011, 9:09 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | Special to

MartaAlex Grimm/FIFA/Getty ImagesShe's the best women's soccer player ever, but Marta (far right) can't win the World Cup alone. She'll have to depend on the supporting cast around her.

For a nation that has an unparalleled World Cup track record, Brazilians surprisingly wallow in the agony of defeat rather than in the ecstasy of victory. The men's team has won the World Cup a record five times, but it is the sting of an infamous loss that is best remembered. In 1950, Brazil hosted the World Cup, cocksure of victory. More than 200,000 fans packed the Maracana, a new, monumental national stadium, to witness the final game against neighboring rival Uruguay. When the impish Alcides Ghiggia drove an unlikely Uruguayan winner past the near post, the 200,000 went quiet. Ghiggia captured the enormity of his achievement with his cheeky quip that "Only three people have with just one motion silenced the Maracana. Frank Sinatra. The pope. And me."

When the final whistle blew, a wave of suicides was recorded across the country. The loss became known as the Marcanzo, or the Maracana blow, and is still considered by many to be the greatest tragedy to befall the nation. For a country without wars or monarchs, the traditional markers of a nation's history, World Cups have become the benchmark of the nation's narrative. The journalist Nelson Rodrigues coined the 1950 loss "our national catastrophe, our Hiroshima," a defeat that still wounds, which none of Brazil's subsequent victories has come close to healing.

This 2011 Brazilian women's team is all too familiar with the agony of falling at the last. Although it favors the artistic style of attacking football embodied by the men's team of Pele and Carlos Alberto in their 1970s pomp, it has unveiled a glass jaw in title games. At the past three major tournaments, As Canarinhas (The Female Canaries) have claimed second place. They were silver medalists at the 2004 Athens Olympics, runners-up at the 2007 Women's World Cup and silver-medal winners again at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

To win in Germany would be to etch themselves into Brazilian history, but perhaps, even more significantly, victory would be a game changer at the societal level. Incredible as it might sound, women were forbidden from playing soccer by Brazilian law until 1979. Even after the legislation was repealed, cultural change lagged behind. Brazil, ruled by a military dictatorship until the 1980s, remains a machista, male-dominated society, in which traditional gender roles have been rigidly defined. Author Alex Bellos reduced the separation to a simple rule of thumb, explaining, "For men, national identity is expressed through football; for women, through sensuality."

Although the economy's roar and the enlightenment of the Internet have played modernizing roles, the growth of women's soccer repeatedly has been hampered by old stereotypes, as star players and even a leading female referee were encouraged to bare all for Brazilian Playboy, and a Most Beautiful Player was elected at the National Cup in the 1980s.

Most challenging of all, the media barely acknowledged the existence of women's leagues, and when it did, coverage veered toward the offensive. Articles referred to players as "Pussy Cat" and "drops to refresh your eyes," as if musty Hollywood lothario Robert Evans was doing the writing.

But the arrival of striking wonder Marta and the team's subsequent march to a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics have been game changing, seeing the women replace the men on the covers of the sports page, albeit briefly. Marta, born Marta Vieira da Silva, is worthy of the hype. The finest women's soccer player ever to have lived. Hailed as "Pele in skirts," she combines the mind of a poet with a fierce will and peerless athletic ability. She weighs in at a mere 128 pounds, and a Don King-style case could be made for her to be proclaimed the most talented player, pound for pound, in world soccer today.

Marta's relentless competitive spirit was forged in childhood. She was raised in the dusty, cane-cutting, northeastern town of Dois Riachos, her intuitive skills the result of a game born in the streets, dribbling crumpled plastic bags in place of a ball. Lacking female role models, Marta crafted her technique on Rivaldo, the World Cup-winning striker who fused clinical touch with artistic imagination. Her 2007 goal during the 4-0 semifinal drubbing of the U.S. was a strike of which Rivaldo himself would have been proud. A startling flick began a bewildering move in which she lacerated the American defense by weaving her body into slithers of space.

Although she is just 25, Marta's mantelpiece is already bloated with silverware. Reigning five-time FIFA women's world player of the year, the striker was the leading goal scorer at the 2007 World Cup, her seven-goal haul sufficient to merit the Golden Ball honors. However, in the final against powerhouse Germany, she struck a potentially game-tying penalty straight at the goalkeeper, and the Germans went on to win 2-0. The agony of the miss still lingers. Marta recently admitted she would "exchange all of the personal awards for a single World Cup victory."

[+] EnlargeCristiane
Nelson Antoine/Getty ImagesMarta is ably abetted by the physical threat of strike partner Cristiane.

Soccer, however, is not an individual game. While Marta soaks up all the media attention, once the Brazilians take the field, they will depend on the supporting cast that revolves around her. Herein lies the challenge. Although Marta is ably abetted by the physical threat of strike partner Cristiane and the intelligent distribution of veteran midfield engine Formiga, the midfield suffers from being too quintessentially Brazilian. In its hunger to counter attack, defensive duties are too often an afterthought.

Marta herself has recognized that the lack of team organization might prove to be the Brazilians' Achilles' heel. Brazil's defensive vulnerability could be aggravated by less than methodical preparation coming into the tournament, a shoddy build-up that forced the striker to admit that infrastructurally "we're trailing a step behind teams like Germany or the United States."

If Brazil is to contend, it will be forced to discover its rhythm and cohesion during the tournament -- an extraordinarily difficult task in the crucible of international competition, as the heavily favored men's team discovered at the 2006 World Cup. Kaka's comments after being steamrolled by France in the quarterfinals might well soon haunt the 2011 women's team. "Talent alone is not enough in soccer," he lamented. "There was no more talented side than ours. But it was not enough."

Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett