Marta's quest for soccer glory

MALMO, Sweden -- Marta Vieira da Silva of Brazil strides toward the stadium gates with the resolute air of a player who needs to leave the workday behind. There is still urgency in her gait at age 29.

A few hours before, her Swedish club, FC Rosengard, had come out flat and tight in the most important match of the season. The team flailed listlessly for the first 15 minutes of the UEFA Women's Champions League quarterfinal, lucky to give up just one goal in the weak March sunshine. It was not what the players expected of themselves, not after they had put themselves in prime position to advance by grinding out a 1-1 draw in the first leg the week before on VfL Wolfsburg's German grounds.

In the 24th minute of the home match, Marta did what she has done so often -- but never the same way twice -- the past decade. She calculated the trajectory of a long pass as it sailed overhead, split two defenders on the run, settled the ball with a touch, knifed past the charging, lunging Wolfsburg goalkeeper along the edge of the 18-yard box and cranked a left-footed shot that took a bouncing path inside the far post and ricocheted upward with enough pace to rattle the cage. It wasn't the prettiest goal Marta has ever scored -- that would make for one hellacious beauty pageant -- but it shocked her team's heart back into rhythm.

Ultimately, it wasn't enough. Rosengard eked out a 3-3 draw but was eliminated because of the road goal differential. Attendance was a bright spot, however: a club record of nearly 6,000.

After the Wolfsburg match, Marta emerges from the dressing room looking depleted, bundled in a blue quilted jacket and gray hoodie and toting a bulky knapsack that accentuates her slight build. She lingers for a few minutes to talk to fans before she starts to walk away. Someone calls her name. Marta half-turns, waves and keeps moving -- she has mastered the celebrity's art of acknowledging people without stopping and getting stuck -- then realizes the person beckoning is Bev Lowe, whose daughter, Ali Riley, has played with Marta on three teams.

The distinctive, high-cheekboned face lights up. Marta spreads her arms wide and leans over a barricade to embrace Lowe. "Next time," she says in English. She lifts her shoulders with the rueful, determined shrug of an athlete keenly aware those chances are dwindling and heads for the exit.

"Next time" means now at the 2015 Women's World Cup, where Marta and Brazil open against South Korea on Tuesday in Montreal. Marta leads every Players To Watch list, and millions will follow that advice on TV. Her highlight reel, with its superlative combination of agility, touch and instinct, still provokes the most gasps.

It is the mixed blessing and curse of women's soccer that the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the sport's most viable platforms for exposure and commercial opportunity, come a mere 14 months apart in a four-year cycle. The wave peaks, then crashes. In between, there is only the volatile economy of women's elite club soccer and tournaments such as the UEFA Women's Champions League, in which big-time players compete on a small stage for pride and a fraction of the prize money the men make.

Brazil has never won the World Cup, including in three tries since Marta's international career began in 2003, a span in which she has scored 91 goals. In August of next year, Marta and her teammates will aim to win an Olympic gold medal in their country. Those prospective accomplishments have kept Marta's incentive as intense as her luminous, hazel-brown eyes. Nothing seems to have dulled her motivation -- not the five consecutive FIFA Women's World Player of the Year awards she won from 2006 to 2010 and not the endorsements and six-figure salaries she has pulled down for much of her career, earning power that puts her in the top percentile of the top 1 percent of female soccer players in history.

Her life story is an outlier as well. In a sport where female icons are customarily shaped by either middle-class structure or urban grit, she was the first global superstar to come out of rural poverty. The odyssey that led her to a tidy shoebox of a stadium in Sweden is more improbable than any myth.

Marta opens the door for a small ESPN armada that includes an interpreter from Brazil. "Thank God!" she exclaims in Portuguese, rolling her eyes in playful exaggeration, but it's clear she is relieved. Marta played for the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer league in the United States for parts of three seasons and understands a great deal of English, but she resists using it on the record.

Her Swedish is excellent, out of necessity and strong affinity. Marta is largely self-taught -- she absorbed a lot through TV in her early years here -- and speaks fluently, albeit with a strong accent. She is still bent on improving and asked FC Rosengard to cover language lessons in her most recent contract. The team is also supporting her application for Swedish citizenship. She says she is and always will be a proud Brazilian citizen, but she wants to be able to move freely between the two countries after her playing days end.

Much was made of whether a teenager from a tropical climate could possibly survive in a northern European country, as if Marta were a fragile flower that would wither from the shock. Marta will never love the cold, but compared with the odds she beat in getting noticed and getting out of her hometown of Dois Riachos, it is a small obstacle.

Marta grew up in the arid interior of the Alagoas state in northeast Brazil, where most people scratch out a living in agriculture. Her single mother was consumed with feeding and clothing her four kids. Marta found both escape and considerable resistance when she stuffed newspapers into hand-me-down shoes and played soccer with the boys. The technique and the mental toughness she developed would later serve her well.

At 14, Marta took a three-day bus ride to Rio de Janeiro to try out for a premier club, and she stayed. At 17, she scored three goals in the U.S.-hosted 2003 World Cup. The next year, she was recruited to play for Umea, a Swedish team based 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Marta flew there sight unseen and later would toss her first handfuls of snow in the air for the cameras, masking her nerves with childlike glee.

Yet one aspect of Marta's saga is familiar. Like so many soccer nomads, she has found that the best way to excel for her home country is to live and work elsewhere. The interesting twist is that, over time and in the run of play, she also found a second home.

Continuity is the rarest phenomenon in women's soccer. Along with its counterparts in France and Germany, the Swedish league, known as the Damallsvenskan, is the closest thing the professional game has to a pillar. U.S. national team stalwarts such as Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy moonlighted there in the early 1990s; current USWNT players including Hope Solo, Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg have also logged stints there.

Marta and other top Brazilians have played for pro teams at home, but the quality still lags behind the handful of established leagues in Europe, Japan and North America, and the youth development system is a work in progress. Partly to pick up that slack, Brazil's soccer federation recently started a women's national team residency program.

"We're doing this for the Olympics and the World Cup," Marta says. "Some of these girls, when they went back to the national team, they were not so well-prepared."

Migrating to Sweden began as a means to an end for Marta, who wanted to improve, stay fit between major tournaments and send money home. As she grew into a megastar, Swedish lifestyle and culture began to represent something more than a training ground. Sweden became a place she could breathe.

"It's a small, quiet, respectful country," says Press, who played alongside Marta for a season at Tyreso FF in suburban Stockholm. "She doesn't have to deal with the hullaballoo she had even when she was in the United States. When she played for the L.A. team, it was more of a big ordeal. People were pulling at her all the time. But in Sweden she can live her life happily and have a normal life and still play some of the best soccer in the world."

Marta returned to her adopted country after a detour to the WPS; her first two teams folded, and the league bailed after its third season. She and Press formed a productive scoring combination at Tyreso (where they were coached by current U.S. assistant Tony Gustavsson), but even as they marched toward the UEFA Women's Champions League final, the organization's parent company went into a financial tailspin.

"They went bankrupt. They didn't pay players," Marta says before using a Portuguese idiom particularly apt for soccer to describe the dysfunction: "They put their hands where their feet should have been."

On the job market once again, last year Marta signed a six-month contract with Rosengard, and the deal was extended in December. By late March, she had settled into a one-bedroom flat on an unremarkable residential street west of downtown. Malmo Idrottsplats, the low-slung sports complex that includes FC Rosengard's home pitch, lies a few minutes away. Marta hadn't yet fetched her bike from her former residence in Stockholm but said she planned to ride to work.

Malmo's social hub is the Lilla Torg (Little Square), a quaint, cobblestone plaza lined with bars and restaurants where patrons huddle under heat lamps and fleece blankets in outdoor seating, once spring weather permits. But Marta has spent so much of her life existing out of suitcases that, when she is home, she mostly cocoons. She watched the much-hyped Brazil-France men's friendly in March in her living room rather than in a pub. She usually unwinds by watching Brazilian soap operas and cooking dishes that remind her of home, such as camarao na moranga, a creamy shrimp stew baked in a hollowed-out pumpkin.

Marta hops up from the couch and returns bearing what looks like an enormous yam.

"Every time I find it, and I'm in the supermarket, at the cashier, they go, 'What is this?' And I go, 'It's cassava.' And they try to find the [produce] code," she said. "I like it a lot because it reminds me of my city and my childhood. My grandmother would plant it with other things. We could grind it and make flour. It's a bit more expensive here."

Marta has become a practiced public speaker, but she still describes herself as shy and private away from her circle of pals and teammates. She cares deeply about the way she comes across. She initially rejected the idea of letting cameras into her home -- it wasn't fully furnished, it wasn't perfect -- but, a couple of hours before her scheduled interview, she contacted the local rep for her longtime sponsor Puma and said she had made her digs passable.

On this Sunday afternoon in late March, Marta seems at ease -- as much as one can be with a two-person camera crew setting up in the small dining nook and three friends from Stockholm hanging out to watch. She plops down on a gray, sectional couch and lavishes baby talk on her long-haired Chihuahua, Candinho, who has made numerous social media cameos. Her own shining hair, burnished with metallic highlights, is partly covered with a pullover hat, and a chunky watch adorns her wrist.

Tears well up in her eyes as she talks about where she's from, but Marta seems less torn between two cultures than supremely grateful to be grounded in both. She knows there are worse problems to have. Upon request, she picks up her guitar and strums something she finds evocative: a few verses of a somewhat dolorous love song by the Brazilian sertanejo (country) duo Victor & Leo, who hail from her region.

Sensing the room has grown somber, Marta stops, ducks her head and exclaims, "I'm emotional right now!" Everyone laughs.

"I can sing something more upbeat," she says, and she counts down a three-two-one for the cameras.

I live in a place
In an innocent little house in the Sertao,
With a low fire burning on the stove, wood-burning stove.
I've got it all here
Some milk cows, a good donkey,
A sloping stream, a guitar and some chickens ...

What a good life, oh oh oh
What a good life

Marta's youthful incandescence helped Umea defend the UEFA Women's Cup title -- the former iteration of the UEFA Women's Champions League -- her first season there. She has since made three more final appearances, including last year with Tyreso FF, but her team lost each of those matches. Then, as now, the winner collected 250,000 Euros ($280,000 at current exchange rates). The top prize in the men's tournament was hiked to 15 million Euros ($16.9 million) this year.

Malmo, a city of roughly 300,000 residents connected to greater Copenhagen by the 10-mile Oresund bridge, is a university town transitioning from old industry to new and a magnet for immigrants, who make up 40 percent of the population. Some have clustered on Malmo's outskirts in the boxy public housing complex called Rosengard, which has been a hotspot for ethnic and religious strife in recent years. Paris Saint-Germain and Swedish national team striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose parents were from Bosnia and Croatia, grew up there. The women's team, which took on the name when it merged with a men's amateur team, does community outreach programs in the neighborhood.

Among Malmo's transplants is Sao Paulo native and former futsal professional Sergio De Souza, a soccer instructor who lives with his Swedish wife and family. He runs clinics in Rosengard and elsewhere, teaching kids moves based on samba dancing and trying to make it fun. He has dubbed one tricky step-over dribble "the Marta," trying to perpetuate her influence, especially among girls who are tentative or face disapproval at home.

"She has inspired a lot of girls, but it's still a battle," he says.

FC Rosengard also runs youth programs, and that is where CEO Klas Tjebbes, a former ad agency owner, says he wants to concentrate in the future.

"We have never been better than we are now, but financially, we have problems," he says. "There's still no way to make ends meet."

The city of Malmo and corporate sponsors keep the team afloat, but regular-season attendance generally ranges from a few hundred to 1,000. "In the long run, our plan is to be a really good Swedish club that educates young players who will play elsewhere," Tjebbes says. "Fifteen years from now, this club as it is now will not exist."

Tjebbes won't specify Marta's salary but says it is substantially less than what she would make playing in France or Germany. He didn't think the team could afford her, but she wanted to stay in Sweden and have a shot at the UEFA Women's Champions League.

"What really made it tip over for us is that she is such a big name and the publicity around her is so huge that it's worth it even if she wouldn't be on the pitch," Tjebbes says. "It was almost a bonus that she turned out to be in such good shape, with all that hunger and skills and passion she has. A very big part of it was the marketing value. I don't think we realized how big it is."

Marta had never worn anything but No. 10, traditionally assigned to a team's fulcrum, its most indispensable and creative player. But FC Rosengard's roster features world-class women from nine countries, and when Marta arrived, the number belonged to Switzerland's gifted forward, Ramona Bachmann.

Marta took No. 11 and did not sulk. Instead, she worried about how she would be perceived -- almost to a fault.

"Do you think the other girls will accept me?" she asked the team's sports director, Erling Nilsson, early on.

"She doesn't want to be the star," Tjebbes says. "I was amazed when I saw her on the first practice. I don't know what to compare it to -- the biggest of the Hollywood stars gets into your small theater and wants to play. She started to collect the little cones and fetch balls for the others.

"I think that's actually one of the reasons she wasn't 100 percent [last] autumn. She tried so hard to fit in and to do all the best for the team that she sort of put some limits to her own capacity. When she came back from Brazil [after the holidays], and she signed a new contract, she has been more going for it."

Coach Markus Tilly says he has had to urge Marta to be "egotistical" and take more shots.

"The biggest challenge is to create situations and exercises to challenge her and the other top players on the team ... to keep her on the edge and a bit angry because then she performs at her best," he says.

That comes naturally, according to Marta's teammate Ali Riley, who plays behind her at left back. They harmonize beautifully on the field, but Riley says Marta has been known to shove her off the ball in training.

"She wants it so badly," says the California-raised, Stanford-educated defender who starts for the New Zealand national team. "She always feels like she has something to prove. You go into it expecting she might be a bit of a diva, which she probably has the right to be, but she's not.

"It's definitely better to be on her team than playing against her. That's terrifying."

Riley says Marta will stand out in freezing weather after a match and sign autographs until the team's athletic trainer, fearing for her health, dispatches another player to pull her away. Little boys, in that sweet, unfiltered phase when they view her as simply a soccer player -- not a female soccer player -- are often among her admirers.

Marta is a barrier-breaker in Brazil even though she has spent most of her career at a distance, according to Caitlin Fisher, co-founder of the Sao Paolo-based Guerreiras Project, a grassroots educational and advocacy group that seeks to promote gender equity in Brazilian soccer.

Fisher, a former All-Ivy League soccer player at Harvard University, spent a season competing for Santos FC in Brazil and later returned as a researcher and activist. The Guerreiras Project has conducted workshops in which both boys and girls are asked to respond to images of female players and to the notion of playing "like a girl" or "playing like Marta." The latter was universally considered a compliment, Fisher says.

"The thing with Marta that I think is really powerful is this potential she has about really transcending gender in a lot of ways," Fisher says. "She represents the best of the best in football. Regardless of the fact that she's a woman playing in the women's game, people are behind her. Now, what that means for the women's game and the development of it is a whole other question ... but it's just a matter of time. Look where the Brazilian women have been and have gotten with no support -- and a cultural stigma too.

"She has definitely helped open doors and challenged some of the preconceito, the Portuguese word for prejudice, around the women's game. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone walking on any street who didn't know who Marta was."

Marta, talking while on a stroll around her neighborhood for the benefit of the video crew, pauses and regards the reporter's smartphone photo with a slight smile. It was taken in the crowd before the Wolfsburg match. A little blond girl in a pink jacket is posing with a handmade sign with a picture of Marta carefully clipped from a magazine. Marta is wearing her No. 10 Brazilian team kit and roaring like a lioness, focused on something in the distance.

"I was younger here, but I could run as fast as a rocket in those days," Marta says of the image. "Now, my body's in good working order, but it's not ... it's a different engine."

Marta is still capable of singular destruction, as was the case in December, when she laid a hat trick on the U.S. team in a tournament in Brasilia. According to the official report, 5,421 people showed up to see their national treasure play in a 72,000-seat stadium.

Yet Marta is barraged when she goes out in public. There is a disconnect between the personal appeal of stars such as Marta and the struggle for marketing and equal opportunity in the women's game that she finds maddening.

"Always having to explain, always having to somehow ask for support, ask for help," she says. "It's this key that we're constantly hitting, every day, every time that we have the option to and the opportunity to speak in front of cameras, in interviews and even within our work. We try to give our best all the time so that we can send that message to the people who still don't believe."

Starting Tuesday, Marta hopes her best will help lift her teammates into that clearing at the summit she reached long ago as an individual player. Brazil, the 2007 World Cup runner-up and twice an Olympic silver medalist, always features skill and flair -- especially from striker Cristiane, another alchemist on offense -- but has lacked the depth and consistency to get over the last hump.

If Marta were to see her World Cup vision fulfilled, her satisfaction would be immeasurable, and, as usual, the payday would be a sliver of the men's pie: $2 million compared with $35 million. Marta routinely alters games, and she altered many perceptions of what a woman can do with a ball at her feet. But even a career as stellar as hers couldn't and didn't fix the institutional issues in her sport.

Her greatest accomplishment might have been to stay employed and available as a living symbol all these years. Press says Marta showed her that being a "big player" meant "to have that same grace and humility and take younger players under your wings and progress the game in that way."

She is trying to control what she can control: The space in front of her.