The Women's World Cup finals kick off in Germany today with Pele set to be the star attraction. That's 'Pele de Saias' (Pele in a skirt), the Brazilian striker, Marta, whose brilliance as a youngster so enraptured the nation's football followers that she was handed the iconic nickname that has stuck to a genius who has been named Fifa's World Player of the Year five times in succession.
Pele, himself, contacted her to offer his congratulations after the performance that earned her the comparison to the great man, Marta having wowed a crowd of 68,000 at the Estadio do Maracana with her wizardry as Brazil beat the USA to win the 2007 Pan America Games gold medal.
The Pele connection was further cemented in May this year, when a monument to Marta was unveiled at the Rei (King) Pele stadium in Maceio, close to her birthplace in Alagoas. Her rise to fame has been matched by a climb to fortune, the girl who grew up in poverty after her father, a barber, left the family when she was a baby, having become the world's highest paid female footballer.
Her first full-time employment as a player came with the Swedish club Umea, but in 2009 she moved to the American Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league and has annual earnings around £800,000 through her contract with Western New York Flash plus some lucrative endorsements.
Money and fame, but to date for Marta no World Cup winner's medals or Olympic gold. The 25-year-old striker, full name Marta Vieira da Silva, had to settle for runners-up medals at the 2007 World Cup – where she won the Golden Boot and was named Player of the Tournament – and both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. "I've won individual titles," she noted as she looked ahead to the World Cup, "but now I want to get a team medal – not just for me but for the entire team, the coaches and everyone. And for Brazil."
Winning the World Cup, in which Brazil face Australia, Norway and Equatorial Guinea in their group, would give a much needed boost to women's football in a country where – like England – the men's game is followed with unbridled passion but the females of the sport get little recognition apart from when they are involved in major events.
"Those of us women who play football wish that there was more coverage," said Marta, "but it's one of those things that happens. Every year the level is getting higher and I think we surprise a lot of people when the world focuses its attention on the World Cup or the Olympics final. But the reason that women's football is still unknown is because it's not on television and not widely publicised." Marta and her team-mates did get some publicity after the 2008 Olympics final, when they held up a sign declaring "Brazil, we need your support." And support for the women's game has begun to increase, largely due to Marta's profile.
The young Santos striker Neymar, a big-money transfer target for Real Madrid and Chelsea, said of her: "She is sensational, spectacular. When she is on the field, it's like she is playing a different sport. I think she is as important to the women's national team as Ronaldo was to the men's team."
England's first game is against Mexico in Wolfsburg tomorrow evening. "The Mexicans have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years," said England's coach Hope Powell, whose team beat their opponents 5-0 when they last met in 2005. "They're very technical, they're tricky and tenacious – it's going to be tough, but it's important that we get off to a good start to set ourselves up to get out of the group." Group games follow against New Zealand and Japan.Reuse content