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Brazil superstar Marta rose from humble beginnings

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At first they didn't let little Marta, 6 years old and with the hint of a shy smile, play with the boys. It wasn't that she was too small, or because she wasn't good enough, but for the simple fact that she was a girl. And in the impoverished town of Dois Riachos, and indeed across Brazil, soccer was not only the national game, but a game for men.

So Marta shrugged her shoulders and went back to the wasteland lot down a potholed lane from her tiny family home. There she kicked around an ancient soccer ball that had been punctured and deflated. When that disintegrated completely she rolled up discarded plastic and paper bags, then knotted them together to construct a makeshift ball.

And she began honing the skills that would make her the greatest female soccer player in history.

When Marta, 25, steps out to lead Brazil against the United States in Sunday's Women's World Cup quarterfinal in Dresden, Germany, she will do so as the shining light and only genuine superstar in women's soccer.

As five-time reigning world player of the year, she is an icon in her homeland and has utterly changed the perception of women's soccer in the nation that adores its futebol more than any other. She has been described as a female version of Pele, the Brazilian legend widely considered the greatest player ever.

But Marta is on a mission this summer. Having never won a World Cup or an Olympic gold medal, she is determined to put that right in Germany, to add some real silverware to her endless collection of personal platitudes, and the USA is next in her sights.

"I prefer to be humble because I think that is the nicest way," she said. "But of course I want to win the World Cup for Brazil, to achieve something that I have not before and to give this gift to my country.

"I have always dreamed of this, ever since I was a little girl. When I was small I just wanted to play, all the time. When you are young and playing you dream of great things, every kid is the same I think."

Which takes us back to Dois Riachos all those years ago and the tale of how Marta's global adventure began. It didn't take long for the little girl in bare feet to be spotted. First of all she would be included in neighborhood pick-up games, just when the boys needed an extra player to make up the numbers.

Once they realized what she could do with the ball, flicks and tricks and swerves even at a young age, she would be a regular participant who, when teams were being decided, would be selected early – but never first – as male pride affects even those of tender age.

A local coach got to hear about her and rushed her into his junior team, deciding that the positive impact Marta's twinkling toes could have on the field far outweighed any outdated stigma of having a girl on his boys' team. She was ordered to run at the defenders marking her and skip past them, and she did, despite wearing a pair of cleats that were two sizes too big, a gift from a grateful coach to a girl whose family couldn't afford them.

At age 14 she was spotted by Vasco da Gama, a famous Brazilian club in the process of starting up a short-lived women's program. Thus began a pro career that would take her to Sweden and then the United States, where she is now in her third season in WPS, albeit with her third different team – the Western New York Flash.

She has achieved everything in soccer except what matters most to her. Four years ago she tore the USA apart in a 4-0 semifinal romp, only to come unstuck against Germany in the championship game. A recent magazine article was headlined "Marta Rules The World" – but as of yet, she has not ruled the World Cup.

"Losing the final in 2007 hurt but I have always felt I would get another chance," Marta said. "And when that chance comes, I am confident we will take it."

Those could be considered fighting words, even from this soft-spoken and understated genius, which adds up to a nightmarish scenario for a USA team struggling to make its defense click in what is threatening to becoming a disappointing campaign.

The American backline looked shaky and disjointed in a 2-1 upset defeat to Sweden in the final game in Group C, a result that catapulted Pia Sundhage's team into this Brazil matchup instead of a considerably easier quarterfinal against Australia.

The Swedish attack was speedy and organized, but did not have the dynamism of the Brazilian forward machine, or anyone with the pace and trickery of Marta. It will be a significant challenge and one, if not overcome, that could spell an early trip home for the Americans.

"We know we will have to be better," said USA goalkeeper Hope Solo. "There is no room for error anymore. We will have to win or we are done. We believe in ourselves but we know it is a challenge because we are up against one of the best."

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