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Marta revolutionized women’s soccer

How the Brazilian legend redefined an entire sport by the sheer force of her brilliance.

The 2007 World Cup semifinal between Brazil and the United States was one of world soccer’s greatest butt-whoopings. Marta was the best player on the pitch from whistle to whistle, and the match was effectively over at halftime when, already down two goals, USWNT midfielder Shannon Boxx was red carded. There was little for Brazil to do in the second half except show off, and Marta could never resist an opportunity like that.

In the 79th minute of the match, Marta received the ball 30 yards away from goal. She had her back turned to American defender Tina Ellertson, who appeared to be in good position. Marta’s first touch popped the ball up in the air, and the entire American defense stopped to watch. With a magical second touch, Marta flicked the ball over Ellertson’s left shoulder while spinning in the opposite direction.

Modern defenders have since learned to react to this by committing a hard foul, but Ellertson had no frame of reference. She’d almost certainly never had an attacker try it on her. By the time she realized she should just pull Marta’s shirt, it was too late, and the Brazilian was a step past her.

Bravely, Cat Whitehill stepped up to Marta. But by the time Whitehill stuck her foot out for a challenge, Marta was already taking the ball in the opposite direction. Whitehill, a world class defender who finished her career with 134 national team caps, missed her tackle by more than a foot and stumbled. When Whitehill finally recovered her balance, Marta’s shot was already past goalkeeper Brianna Scurry.

“That was one of those moments where as an opposition player you were devastated because it was likely our worst loss in the history of the national team, but on the other side, recognizing that you just saw a glimpse of brilliance,” recalls Heather O’Reilly, who started the match for the USWNT.

While Marta became a household name in that moment, she was already well-known inside women’s soccer. She’d won 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year off the back of impressive performances in European club play. She’d already scored five goals in the World Cup before the semifinal. Marta was well on her way to being recognized as the world’s best player.

But this game in particular marked a turning point for both Marta’s career and women’s soccer as a whole. This was the moment when it became obvious she was more than just the new best player in the world. Marta was going to become the most influential player in the history of the sport.

Brazil didn’t go on to win the World Cup. Marta missed a penalty in the final against Germany. And yet, the 2007 World Cup isn’t remembered for Germany’s triumph at all. It’s remembered for Marta.

“She brought a joy and electricity that wasn’t there before her,” O’Reilly says.

Marta developed that spark in the small town of Dois Riachos, Alagoas state, playing against boys when she wasn’t supposed to. Coaches love to extol the virtues of unorganized street games and the creativity which blooms from them. That effect is amplified when players are held to higher standards because of their gender.

“I played with the boys out on the street without shoes. I was the only girl and every time I played I had to try something so that I could be better,” Marta said in 2012. She had to hide that she was playing from her brother, who didn’t want her to participate — not because he had anything against her playing, but because he wanted to protect her from bullies.

Marta’s mother told off people in town who didn’t want her daughter to play, and accompanied Marta on a two-day bus ride to Rio de Janeiro for a tryout when she was 14. She made the team, Vasco de Gama, but two years later they shuttered their women’s organization. Marta had to play for an amateur club halfway between Rio and her hometown, Santa Cruz, until she was 18 and allowed to move abroad under FIFA rules. After turning 18, Marta left for Umea IK in Sweden.

“The lack of support, people not believing that I could be someone and do something, was the right fuel that really made me stronger and really motivated me to overcome all the lack of support, all the discrimination, all the people not believing,” Marta said about the risks she took when moving clubs as a young player. “I told myself, since I’m a warrior in my personal life, I’m going to take this as a fuel.’”

From 2002 onward, through the next decade, Marta dominated everywhere she went. She scored six goals at the first FIFA women’s youth championship as a 16-year-old, playing against players who were two-to-three years older. She won the Pan American Games a year later, then an Olympic silver medal and a UEFA Champions League title a year after, which led into five consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year awards from 2006-2010.

During her time in the United States, Marta was a member of two of the best club teams in the history of women’s soccer. The roles she played in each of them showed off how complete a player she is.

On the 2010 FC Gold Pride squad, Marta was the unquestioned star and acted like it, scoring 19 goals in 24 matches en route to a WPS MVP award. A year later, her and FCGP teammate Christine Sinclair joined forces with Alex Morgan and Caroline Seger for a Western New York Flash side that looked more like an all-star team than a salary-capped organization. She was more unselfish with the Flash, scoring 10 fewer goals than the season prior, but was still the best player on a championship-winning squad.

When her first stint in America was finished, Marta moved back to Sweden, where her European career started, and won three more league titles.

Marta’s list of titles and individual awards are enough to make it clear she’s the best to ever play the game, but her biggest influence was in how she dominated.

“Usually the most explosive players didn’t have the touch to match, at that point in the development of women’s soccer. Even though you knew she wanted to cut to her left, you knew what was coming, you couldn’t stop it because she’s that quick,” Aly Wagner, Fox World Cup broadcaster and USWNT player on the 2007 team, says.

She adds, “when Marta was determined to get by defenders, she was going to. She was feisty. She had just enough nasty in her. That’s a thing you didn’t see out of creative players at the time, that bite.”

It seems obvious now that a woman could possess all of these skills simultaneously, but it wasn’t in 2002, when Marta first stepped onto the world stage. Even by the time 2007 rolled around, and Marta had been well on her way towards her peak, most people inside of the game still had a very limited idea of what female players were capable of.

Ask a women’s soccer fan who Greg Ryan is, and they’ll tell you he’s the idiot who swapped out Hope Solo for Brianna Scurry and had no plan to slow down Marta in 2007. But until that semifinal, Ryan could do no wrong.

The USWNT of that era played a simple, long ball-oriented game which relied heavily on having better athletes than their opponents. Many considered this style antiquated, but it worked: the team was undefeated under Ryan’s guidance for more than two years, winning four out of the five tournaments they played with him as coach before the World Cup, losing only to Germany on penalties in the 2006 Algarve Cup final. He had not previously been branded as a bad coach, and he probably wouldn’t have been let go by U.S. Soccer if the World Cup draw shook out a bit differently.

But he benched Solo, his team got destroyed by Marta, and the USWNT made a dramatic change that started them on a path towards the team they are today.

O’Reilly and Wagner both recall a locker room filled with players and coaches who were convinced their attitude and teamwork were superior to all other teams, and stronger than any individual talent. They saw Brazil as a team with Marta and a couple of other talented individuals, incapable of beating a real team like theirs.

“We always had this incredible self-belief that the American attitude would let it all work out and it was kind of a humbling moment when it didn’t,” O’Reilly says.

“We rarely discussed the other team,” Wagner says. “I know this sounds absurd because it’s so different now, but things have evolved so much. Marta was a key player that we focused on, but that was rare. We were very generic in our defensive gameplan, everything was broad strokes.”

The USWNT’s direct style didn’t work against Brazil. O’Reilly, Abby Wambach, and

Kristine Lilly couldn’t just outrun and outmuscle the Brazilian defense. And every turnover gifted Marta more chances to run at the Americans in space.

Backlash against Ryan was swift, Swedish manager Pia Sundhage was named as his replacement four months after the loss to Brazil. She took the job intent on morphing the USWNT into a squad that could keep the ball on the ground and attack in multiple ways, rather than relying solely on their athleticism.

“From the first day on the job, she sang to us with her guitar, ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ by Bob Dylan,” O’Reilly says. “That was a sign that we were putting any issues from 2007 in the past, and that this was a new year and a new journey.”

Less than a year into Sundhage’s tenure, the Americans got their rematch with Brazil in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game. Marta was consistently dangerous, but ultimately held at bay, and the Americans won 1-0 in extra time. Sundhage made her team value possession.

“It was frustrating at first because it was against our DNA to possess for possession’s sake and not see a direct result,” O’Reilly says, “but Pia encouraged us to slow down and strike after we’d exposed the opposition. She taught us to cherish the ways to keep the ball for longer bouts.”

The USWNT was not accustomed to attacking through long passing moves on the ground, and would still rely on direct counters and set pieces to score most of their goals. But what they sacrificed from their attack, they made up by limiting the number of times Marta got the ball in space, and forcing her to do more defensive work.

When the Americans were reliant on going long, Marta never had to worry about her role on defense, or chasing to get the ball back. Because the Americans turned the ball over constantly, she got a high volume of opportunities to do something audacious. Even for a player of Marta’s ability, the fourth goal in the World Cup semifinal was a fairly low-percentage move, but one she’ll eventually make if given enough chances.

So keeping possession against Brazil became the USWNT’s best possible defense: Marta can’t score if she doesn’t have the ball.

This didn’t just win the Americans a gold medal in 2008. It marked the single biggest philosophical change that the most successful program in the history of women’s soccer has ever made. The USWNT blew up its entire philosophy because it got destroyed by one player, in one game.

And the USWNT has only been pushing further and further towards trying to dominate possession with each successive coaching hire and tactical switch. From Sundhage, to her successor Tom Sermanni, to current coach Jill Ellis, the USWNT has spent the last 12 years transforming into a keepaway team, dedicated to never letting something like Marta’s 2007 performance ever happen again.

There’s no consensus about who the best pre-Marta women’s soccer player is, but all of the players who are in the conversation are rather straightforward and uninventive, despite their brilliance. Michelle Akers was a wrecking ball who defenders bounced off of. Sun Wen’s primary skill was she was a technically precise ball-striker. Mia Hamm used her giant brain to ghost away from defenders. Birgit Prinz was built like a brick house and stayed composed under pressure. And even the silky, skilled Homare Sawa had a game that was more about vision and precision than trickery.

In the modern game, these players would mostly be considered lunch pail, Do Your Job types, not superstars. In 2019, the focal point of a team’s attack needs to have more than one elite skill. They can’t just be tough as nails, or lightning quick, or technically superb. They need to be at least two of those things, with hopefully a few creative tricks up their sleeve. And the biggest reason it occurs to coaches and players to be so ambitious is Marta’s example.

All of the best teams in the world have attackers with both pace and flair now. The United States has Tobin Heath, France has Eugenie Le Sommer, and the Netherlands have Lieke Martens. These players aren’t much younger than Marta, but they came up through the ranks at the perfect time. All of them were limited players in their younger days, but started their professional careers in a world that had been reshaped by Marta.

O’Reilly, a winger who had both speed and solid technical ability, thinks she would have been asked to work on different skills if she was a teenager today.

“Early in my career, I relied on my speed and athleticism, getting behind players,” O’Reilly says. “Even when I moved to the wing, I was instructed to be very direct and learn a good crossing technique. If I was a young player now I would be presented with more questions at training. I was told a lot of times what to do, and I’m a very coachable person, so I would execute what was asked of me. If I was a young player now I would be put into positions in order to problem solve and make critical decisions on my own.”

Maybe the best direct comparison between pre- and post-Marta USWNT players is Amy Rodriguez and Mallory Pugh. Both were 5’4” forwards whose primary asset as teenagers was their outstanding speed. Both were dominant at Under-17 level, and both were rated as the top player in the country in their graduating classes.

Rodriguez was made into a run-in-behind, goal-poaching striker. It’s a job she did well, but it’s also fair to say she didn’t quite make the most of her talent, scoring 30 times in 132 national team caps from 2005 to 2018. It was only later in her career, once she started playing for FC Kansas City, that she developed a wider skillset, playing with her back to goal and combining with her teammates. By then, she was no longer considered a starting caliber player for the national team.

If Rodriguez was a teenager today, she might have been turned into something a bit more like Pugh, a tricky winger who’s expected to star for the USWNT once Heath and Megan Rapinoe hang up their boots. Pugh often looked like a one-trick speed demon in her early youth national team appearances, but she’s become a more complete player since then. She’s an elite dribbler who can beat anyone one-on-one. She enjoys nutmegging people, and she’s improved her through balls considerably over the past two years. If Pugh was born in 1987, she’d likely have none of those skills.

“Marta took the game to the next level from what everyone deemed possible,” Wagner said. “Her combination of athleticism, skill and flair became possible for every next player that was going to come along.”

Marta was by far the best player in the world during the time period between women’s soccer’s initial explosion in 1999 and Europe’s very recent expansion of professionalization, which is probably the most important time in the game’s development. As the definitive star of the era, she shaped what the game would become — both in how individual players would develop and in how the game evolved tactically to counter players like her.

The game’s early pioneers showed people that women’s soccer was exciting and had something to offer, but Marta opened up a wider range of possibilities. She opened the minds of young women and their coaches, and that’s why she’s the most important person to ever play the game.

“Progress for women’s soccer here doesn’t walk, it crawls,” Marta said in 2014. “Many of these girls have the qualifications the sport demands, but with no incentive, or sponsors or publicity, it’s impossible to move forward. It’s impossible to support yourself playing soccer if you’re a woman playing the game in Brazil.”

She said this about her home country, but it could apply to most countries in the world. Both FIFA and individual football associations have been slow to invest in women’s soccer, and only make efforts to combat sexism when a lot of money is at stake. The on-field progression of women’s soccer has very little to do with anything institutional. It’s almost all down to the influence of exceptional individuals.

O’Reilly says Marta’s success “encouraged more girls to be take-on artists, to really value their skills.” She adds, “maybe at a young age it doesn’t pay off because you’re not the biggest player on the field, but over time working on your skills and your one-on-one ability and your agility with the ball pays off.”

In her unique way, Marta showed young women athletes they could define a game on their own terms. This, more than any trophies or awards, is her legacy.

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