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Marta embodies soccer’s romanticism

Marta rose to prominence with a golden generation of Brazilian tricksters, and outlasted them all.

If you want to watch the recent friendly between the Brazilian women’s national team and Scotland, you can go to YouTube and watch Marta and her teammates play in 480p. It’s not uploaded from a major media network, but the whole game, from the warmups to the postgame action, is there.

There is nothing too special about the game itself beyond being a World Cup warmup. Scotland won 1-0, consigning Brazil to their ninth defeat in a row, and there were barely any fans in the stands. But the fact that the game was even filmed and available is a testament to how far women’s football has come.

Back in 2003 when Marta made her World Cup debut, it was near impossible to get access to big games, let alone friendlies against Scotland. YouTube didn’t exist until 2005. Yet, it’s precisely that progress of women’s football that makes it bizarre to see Marta in such easily available and semi-clear games. She seems out of place in this new world.

Marta at 33 is still a capable and important player for Brazil. She’s their captain and biggest star. Even more than that, she’s also the idol of so many female players in the world. She’s had such a singular impact on women’s football that Pelé calling her “Pelé with skirts” is one of the least absurd things he’s ever said, and in fact could be seen as an understatement.

Marta has won the award for The FIFA World Player of the Year/Best FIFA Women’s Player six times, and finished in the top three 13 times since 2004. She’s competed in four World Cups and three Olympics. She is the all-time leading goal-scorer in World Cup tournaments, with 15 goals since 2003.

In this modern world, though, Marta as a player is not as special as she used to be. Not that she still isn’t good. She won her last Best FIFA Women’s Player award in 2018 (though undeservedly over Sam Kerr). But because she revolutionized the game, she inevitably allowed the game to catch up to her.

These days, there are many players now who have the same creativity and quickness of body and mind that made Marta stand out — players like Sam Kerr, Tobin Heath, Eugenie Le Sommer, and Nikita Parris. And even more players who are as special in their own individual ways, and as famous as Marta used to be. The tough thing about being a pioneer is that the generations after will always be greater because they can build off the ground you laid. So even though there can only ever be one Marta, there are a lot of Martas today.

But no one could ever match up to the romanticism or Marta. This romance comes from both the way that she plays, the beauty and creativity that appeals to the imagination, and nostalgia for the time when she was taking over the world. She belongs in the past.

She does the creative and unpredictable. Where players saw one or two possible decisions in a particular situation, Marta, because of her skills and courage to use them, opened up more possibilities for herself.

There was probably nothing particularly special about football back in 2006. But because 2006 happened during my formative years, the time when life seems so simple and light, I have a special attachment to it. It also happened to coincide with the reign of a group of Brazilian players, of which Marta was a part, that captured all the romantic notions of beauty in football.

Though Brazil came up short in the 2006 men’s World Cup and 2007 women’s World Cup, the country was going through a(nother) golden era for creative talent: Ronaldo at Real Madrid, Ronaldinho at Barcelona, Kaka at AC Milan, Robinho at Real Madrid, Adriano at Inter, Juninho Pernambucano at Lyon, and Roberto Carlos at Real Madrid.

Marta stood as tall as her male counterparts. She wasn’t just a prolific scorer, she had the same breathtaking ability to perform magic on the field as many of them did. She did things that made you want to take the ball outside and hurt yourself in an attempt to replicate them.

She won her first Best Player in the World award at the end of 2006. The next summer, she won both the golden boot and the award for Best Player in the World Cup. That was where she put on an iconic show of skill, relentlessness, and goal-scoring ability against the United States in the semifinals. That performance introduced her to an entire American audience — and by extension, a global audience — to how otherworldly she was.

In those days, the games were hard to access. Few networks carried the tournament and Youtube was only two years old. And outside of the international tournaments, finding clips of female players was near impossible. One of the few places to see highlight videos of the best female players was during the awards portion of the FIFA Gala.

I remember seeing those clips of her running around defenders as if they were children. The subtle shifts of the hips. The stepovers. The long dribbles where everyone else seemed to be paralyzed by awe. When I think of Marta, I think of grainy videos of her tricks and flicks in the early days of video-sharing. I think of her as the longest-lasting member of that era’s club of brilliant Brazilians, and as something new and dangerous in women’s football.

In many stories involving magic, the supernatural is always at the edges of the natural world. It’s either dying out or it’s reserved for the special few. I think it was perfect for Marta to come of age in the time when it was difficult to see her play. The few times that you were able to catch glimpses of her were so fantastic that they could sustain the imagination for a long time afterwards. She was not just clinical and effective; Marta was the perfect player of romance.