Changed the Game: Marta walked the walk so women's soccer could run

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Here’s a weird question. Is it … fitting that Marta has never won the World Cup or Olympics, the two biggest women’s soccer trophies on offer?

It’s not that she isn’t the greatest female player of all time without those honors, nor does it minimize her savant blend of technical and physical ability.

Rather, it means there still exists something out there to fight for. And if there’s one thing Marta Vieira da Silva knows, it’s fighting for something.

She reminded us after Brazil’s loss to France in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, when she took command of her post-match interview, looked directly into the camera and spoke to Brazil’s next generation.

“It’s wanting more. It’s training more. It’s taking care of yourself more,” Marta encouraged. “It’s being ready to play 90 plus 30 minutes. This is what I ask of the girls.

“There’s not going to be a Formiga forever. There’s not going to be a Marta forever. There’s not going to be a Cristiane. The women’s game depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end.”

Marta namechecked fellow legends Cristiane and Formiga, who led a player revolt against the Brazilian federation in 2017 after “years of disrespect and lack of support,” which culminated in the firing of Emily Lima, the first female coach in program history.

She didn’t quit the team alongside them — pleading instead for them to rejoin a united front, which they ultimately did a few months later — but Marta’s impact on fighting inequality in Brazilian soccer is beyond reproach.

Brazil midfielder Marta (10) follows a play during the first half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match against the United States, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Even though Marta has never won a World Cup or Olympics, her soccer prowress is unmatched. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Marta's soccer dominance is unmatched

As a child, she ran right into it. There were no girls teams in her native Dois Riachos. There weren’t many girls playing at all, since the government didn’t allow them to from 1941 through 1979. So she played with the boys, and was discovered by Rio-based club Vasco da Gama as a 14-year-old. “Just get on the bus,” Marta later implored her younger self, with the decision to remain home or travel some 1,200 miles to a new beginning shivering through her bones.

We all know what choice she made. Marta is Brazil’s record scorer, male or female, with 109 international goals. She’s also the World Cup’s record scorer, male or female, with 17. Pelé himself dubbed her “Pelé in skirts.”

She was named FIFA World Player of the Year six times, including five straight years from 2006 to 2010. It was during that period when she became a household name in women’s soccer. She was a level above every other player on the pitch in the 2007 Women’s World Cup, where Brazil handed the United States its most decisive loss at a major tournament before losing to Germany in the final.

Her brilliance rippled so hard that the USWNT literally reoriented its approach for the 2008 Olympics in anticipation of facing Brazil again, opting to play more possession-based rather than direct and overpowering. The less turnovers, the thinking went, the less opportunity Marta would have on the ball.

At the club level, she’s won major trophies in Brazil, Sweden and the United States, serving as a star attraction for leagues that desperately needed one as they were being built.

And through it all, the Brazilian federation couldn’t seem less interested in marketing her or supporting the women’s team. From the Maracanã to the municipalities, investment in the sport barely existed. “Progress for women’s soccer here doesn’t walk,” Marta said in 2014. “It crawls.”

Last September, federation president Rogerio Caboclo made a show of stating Brazil had reached an equal pay agreement, but the Brazilian women have only played five matches since, two friendlies and February’s SheBelieves Cup, and there’s little way of knowing the truth. (The USWNT’s equal pay fight, for example, has been obfuscated by various percentages and performance-based incentives, sometimes wielded in questionable faith.)

As ever, it will be up to Marta — who at 35 may still have another World Cup run in her — and her teammates to tell us. It will be up to women across all sports, until the world has evolved past the need for it. To call out the inequality. To expose the rot. To hold administrators’ feet to the fire, then light one underneath the next generation. All while performing with the same candid magic on the playing field that's earned them such esteem.

“There’s not going to be a Marta forever,” the legend said in 2019.

Except there already is.