It took football to ignite the passion of the people at the Rio Olympics. For a while, it seemed as if Brazil’s women’s team would carry the dreams of a nation. When the men took the podium to receive their gold medals, the women’s game could be forgiven for lamenting yet another false dawn in its development.
When Neymar converted the winning penalty in the Maracaña to give Brazil its most precious gold medals of the 2016 Olympic Games, a nation exhaled a collective sigh of relief as much as cries of joy. Despite attempts by the team and its coaches to play down the revenge narrative, it was a strong dose of redemption for the 7-1 loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup.
The victory was Brazil’s crowning moment of a Games that sputtered in fits and bursts but never truly had a liftoff to rival the hysteria of 2012 hosts London. The 5-4 shootout outcome followed an acceptably entertaining 1-1 encounter over 120 minutes but flash back just two weeks before, the atmosphere around the men’s football team felt very different.
On the back of uninspiring goalless draws against South Africa and 113th ranked Iraq, fans packed in at the Olympic Stadium began chanting, “Marta is better than Neymar.” Captaining the u23 squad, 24-year-old Neymar was cast as Brazil’s saviour but when he and his teammates struggled to click on the pitch, the Brazilian public’s attention was diverted to his female counterpart. Marta, 30, who like Neymar, wears the iconic no.10 shirt of Pelé, is widely regarded as the best player currently playing the women’s game.
A picture of a young boy, wearing a replica ‘Neymar’ jersey but with the Barcelona star’s name scratched out and ‘Marta’ scrawled in its place, became the calling card of the upheaval. Change appeared afoot. Brazil’s women’s team, who have never come out of top in a worldwide competition unlike their five-time World Cup winning counterparts, looked destined to crash into the imaginations of a country resistant to celebrating women’s football.
As the men struggled to get going, Marta and company brought new pride to the green and gold and until a gritty Swedish side, who had previously knocked out the Americans, crashed the party in the semi-finals, it looked like it was they rather than Neymar and his crew who would fulfill the dream of a first football Olympic gold. But it wasn’t to be.
39,000-plus were in attendance at the bronze-medal game in Sao Paulo but once the dizziness of host fever subsided, a look at their Canadian opponents, who deservedly secured third place, tells a striking story about the place of women’s football in Brazil.
Just one per cent of football playing Brazilians are women or girls. Head north to Canada and third of those playing the game are female. The painful reality is that women’s soccer in Brazil struggles for funding. Its lowly status means it’s short on respect and supporters, yet they field a team of world-class players that entertains. Sadly, during last year’s Women’s World Cup, hosted in Canada, the Brazilian team received little media attention back home.
Globally, the women’s game is on the rise but in Brazil, it’s stuck in another century. Football for women was banned in Brazil until 1979, notably just eight years longer than in England, where the FA forbade women from playing on the grounds of association clubs. Unlike in England, however, where the WSL goes from strength to strength, the belief that the game is just not meant for women still resonates strongly in Brazil.
Of course, football has always been popular among Brazilian women. There were as many as 40 teams in the Rio area alone in the early part of the 20th century. Now the top female stars are forced to leave the country in search of a career at the highest level elsewhere.
“Maybe one day we will have a strong competitive league instead of our women footballers always having to play abroad,” said superstar Marta during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Marta, who was named the FIFA World Player of the Year an incredible five years in a row between 2006 and 2010, has played for eight professional teams but seven of them have folded due to financial pressures. She has twice played for Santos, the club of Pelé and his successor Neymar. The storied club made headlines for the wrong reasons, when in 2011, they dissolved their women’s soccer program. Making matters worse, it is generally understood that the decision was made in light of Neymar’s contract extension, which kept him at Santos until his transfer to Barcelona in 2013.
The Santos coach said at the time, “As we’re champions, wages are higher, the players are more expensive and we have to readjust.”
To put this adjustment into context, Neymar’s salary under the new contract was 1 million reais (£240,000) a month while the women’s annual budget was 1.5 million reais (£360,000). Salaries for professional women’s soccer players are meagre and attendance at games is low.
There was some reprieve when Santos revived their women’s team in April 2015 but change is slow. Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, scorer of the second highest number of international goals ever, is well aware of the challenges facing the team they defeated for Olympic bronze.
“As a fan of women’s football,” said Sinclair, who earned her 250th cap against the green and gold, “I hope it does change — they deserve it.”
Meanwhile, Brazilian head coach Vadao pointed to a lack of funding in analysing why his team hadn’t won gold but sees brighter times ahead for women’s football in his home country.
“The feeling is we could have done it,” he said. “But we need support from the government, from the schools and all the clubs.”
“We conquered Brazilian hearts and it’s always a very big step,” Vadao continued. “The feeling I had is that Brazil sees women’s football with a different eye from now on.”
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