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Back in the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinal against the United States, Marta scored two of Brazil's four goals; the 21-year-old was a puppeteer with the U.S. defense, which had allowed only two goals in four games. She dribbled through four, five, six defenders and spun the Americans around, the crowd in Hangzhou, China, roaring with her every touch in Brazil's 4-0 victory.
Fast-forward to now, when, at age 32, she's playing professionally in her fourth stint in the U.S., her fifth World Cup a little more than a year away. She has more World Cup goals (15) than any other player in the history of the women's game and a list of personal accolades that would rival any of Brazil's great monomial stars. In fact, no player from any nation, man or woman, can match Marta's five consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year honors, from 2006 to 2010.
Yet some see her mark of distinction in what she has not done, namely win a World Cup or an Olympics. But don't blame Marta. Blame the Brazilian Soccer Federation, which has shown that it simply does not care enough to support women's soccer in its country. For more than a decade, Brazilian women's national team players have been asking for more funding and support from their federation. Last fall five women, including star forward Cristiane, who played in four World Cups and four Olympics, quit the national team after the federation fired the squad's first woman head coach. In an open letter, the players said they were "exhausted from years of disrespect and lack of support." Marta has said she'll remain on the national team and continue to fight for improvements.
There is still little to no grassroots structure for girls to play soccer in Brazil, where the sport is almost spiritual. Because Marta had so few opportunities there, she left as a teenager to play professionally in Sweden and America. Yes, Marta earned those five player of the year nods in spite of her federation.
A fitting capstone would be for Brazil to finally win in what might be Marta's last World Cup next summer or in her last Olympics in 2020 -- to honor what Marta has given the game, the magic she has bestowed. Yet what is fitting often is not feasible, even with the best player in the world willing it so.
We never have to imagine what Pele could have done for soccer if only he were given proper support. We never wonder how Messi might have fared with a talented team around him. We never debate Cristiano Ronaldo's legacy if only he had backing. No, hypotheticals are sadly reserved for the women-and most distinctly for Marta.