<
>

Brazil More Than Marta In Opening Win

Brazil coach Vadão was preparing to leave the news conference when he was asked one more question.

"I always say that [she] does not belong to planet Earth," he answered. "That's why she's playing at this level. Quite often we try to spare her, to give her less work, considering her age, but since she does not come from planet Earth, she's still here."

If you presumed Vadão was talking about Marta, nobody would blame you. It's often been blithely asserted as one of the intrigues of this World Cup that Marta's quest to finally win a World Cup is the story of the Brazil team. And right on cue, she had popped up in the opening game of her latest campaign with a goal that took her past Birgit Prinz and put her out in front all on her own as the leading World Cup goal scorer of all time.

But Vadão was actually talking about Marta's teammate Formiga, who'd earned the penalty kick that Marta converted and herself had earlier scored off a poorly hit back pass to net for the first goal on the way to Brazil's 2-0 victory over South Korea. In doing so, Formiga became the oldest player, at 37 years and 98 days, to score in a World Cup -- and she did so in a manner that spoke of a commitment and enthusiasm that belied her veteran status.

This is Formiga's sixth World Cup (a record she shares with only Japan's Homare Sawa), but watching her stepping up late into the game to continually break up plays, then help overload the attack, the indefatigable midfielder was repeatedly at the heart of the action. There was no sense of the team carrying a passenger -- some deep-lying veteran indulged for her playmaking from deep; Formiga more than pulled her weight and looked like a player half her age with her ceaseless running. It's not only Marta who has a longstanding "dream" to win a World Cup.

And yet Marta is still the story, even when she appears not to be. Vadão acknowledged as much when asked why most of her touches in the first half seemed to be 30 or 40 yards from goal, where her capacity to do harm appears limited. For the coach, it was about team shape.

"Marta integrated the group at the end of our preparations, [when] we had a certain challenge to have an athlete with more speed [out wide]," he said. "Marta proposed to do that function so we could place another player in that middle-field situation. So Marta, with all her capacity and all her prestige, made herself available to play on one of the sides so that we could have [Andressa] Alves on one side and Marta on the other."

Brazil changed its approach under Vadão to prepare for this World Cup, implementing a residential program since February. Observers have been waiting to see just how different this Brazil team might be this time round, and whether it might finally deliver the consistency and chemistry whose absence has historically undermined Brazil teams at the highest level.

So in Vadão's assessment of her performance, it was Marta's ego-less commitment to the chemistry of the team over and above her own natural instincts that made her such an example for the Brazilians.

"Just the spirit of Marta to work in the group and be ready to work in a position gives a positive input to other teammates," he said. "She's a very good example as a captain."

If that sounds a little intangible, in fairness Marta's contribution on the night -- other than her record-breaking penalty -- was sometimes of the intangible variety. Despite Vadão's assertion that Marta had been more of her familiar self in attack in the second half, his captain's flicks and passes behind the defense were still coming from a deeper position than we're used to seeing her; her penalty was one of only two touches she had in South Korea's penalty area all night, and it was also a night when, with the goal gaping, the "deadly predator" Marta had the ball pinched off her toes by a sprawling tackle by Lee Eunmi in the 6-yard box late on.

But as Vadão might point out, there's more to what Marta brings than the stats can tell. He credits younger players growing in confidence to the influence of veterans such as Formiga, Cristiane and, of course, Marta herself, and their creation of an atmosphere in which players know they don't have to be perfect.

"We evolved a lot, but the presences of younger players such as Andressa and Raquel -- those are players that have had big support from more experienced players," he said. "The more experienced players have reassured the younger players when they make mistakes so that they feel well with themselves."

But Vadão also sought to downplay any suggestion of a passing of the torch.

"This concern with 'renewal' we don't have very much, because it's a matter of fact of all occupations," he said.

It was all very cool and measured, in keeping with Brazil's performance, which was the perfect opening game in seeing the players sketch out their capabilities without exhausting or over-extending themselves on the turf (which, by comparison to some previous Big O surfaces seemed to play at least somewhat in keeping with its new official designation as an elite surface). The Brazilians look like a team with more to give, but they have enough players with enough experience to know that they don't have to give it all at once.

So add this to the growing pile of first impressions: The host country ground out an edgy victory to start with; Germany ran rampant in its opener; France asserted its all-round emergence as an elite force by dominating the English; and the United States improvised a kind of greatest-hits compilation from some of its individual stars that was enough to get it past the sum of Australia's parts.

Meanwhile, Brazil just did what it had to do and moves comfortably on.

"This victory gave us a certain tranquility," Vadão said.

If Marta concurred, she wasn't saying. She was on the team bus by the time Vadão had finished talking; personal record taken care of, team goal still in mind. That's why she's playing at this level.