“The Best Player on Earth is Looking for a Job”, a New York Times headline declared in 2011. The player they referenced was not Messi–he has a nice job, thank you very much, scoring tricksy goals and baffling defenders as a star forward for Barcelona. No, the player they were talking about was Marta Viera de la Silva, Brazilian wunderkind and so famous she goes only by Marta. Five time FIFA player of the year, Marta is almost indisputably the best player in the world today. And yet, at the time of the article, she was technically unemployed.
Ignore for a moment the fact that she returned to Sweden after this article to play for around a 400,000 dollar salary and consider the comparisons to the men’s game: if you are one of the most elite players in the world, income is certainly not an issue. Nor, for the most part (and barring injury) is finding stable employment…because soccer is the world’s game, and all will pay to see it. But apparently, they won’t always pay for women to play it.
Marta grew up playing with the boys in Dois Raichos, Brazil, showing off her equal skills until a scout found her and introduced her to the game of professional women’s soccer–miraculously, he found a team for her in Brazil, seven years after a countrywide ban on women’s soccer. It’s telling when the world’s best player grew up in a country that didn’t even acknowledge her sport. I can guarantee you no male player faced that same kind of discrimination.
And so Marta flourished. Now, an accomplished star, she is known as the female Pele (by Pele himself, no less) and it has been said by many that she could, theoretically, play the men’s game. She’s that good. But her career has been a hodgepodge of bouncing around leagues as they folded from beneath her, unable to stay afloat due to lack of cash and support.
And why should this be? The women’s game may not be as physical as the men’s, but one can hardly say they play with less skill. Women also flop less and for less time, making for a faster paced game with more action. And soccer is the world’s most popular sport. Women’s soccer in particular has exploded across the globe, with 29 million women and girls playing soccer in 2013 according to FIFA. What are the reasons for the women’s struggles in this sport?
In truth, much of the explosion of the game has been in the US and Europe, western countries with more liberal attitudes towards women and sports. Marta mentioned how in Brazil, soccer is still seen as a masculine sport–something that is not the case in the United States. The middle east also struggles with women’s sports. The West Asian Football Federation has been working on an initiative in 2013 to increase the profile of women’s sports in the region, including U-16 and U-19 competitions in the area.
Something, however, we must remember in terms of soccer and women is that soccer itself took decades to reach the level of superstardom it achieved in the mid 20th century and onward. Women’s sports have only had the chance to be mainstream for a fraction of that time. We must also remember that the status of women’s rights in a country directly influences their participation in sports, and there are a lot of places in the world where the term women’s sports is still an oxymoron, for the most part.
It is apparent here that that problem lies in the gender attitudes around the world, and not the sport itself. FIFA president Sepp Blatter caused an uproar in 2004 when he said that women could increase the popularity of their game by wearing “tighter shorts”. Sorry, Sepp, but female soccer players don’t want to be ogled while they play. They want to be admired for their speed, skill, and sportsmanship. While women’s sports always seem to struggle to find a foothold in terms of popularity, women’s soccer has the unique position of being a part of a sport that is popular worldwide instead of concentrated within one nation. And with the unique stardom that players and teams (like Marta) are experiencing, they are in a good position to move forward. Soccer has been used to effect social change before, and it has resisted the effects of some of the most heavy handed leaders in the world. With the explosion of players in the world in the past few decades, the next feat is to get women like Marta to keep fighting for their sport in their country and support the development of women’s soccer from the ground up.
Should this go well, youth leagues can be developed, women can grow up playing the sport, and this will help the women’s league system stabilize. As the skill and thrill of women’s soccer increases, the popularity of the sport will too–one can see this in the drama surrounding the final games in the Women’s World Cup.
Marta wasn’t unemployed when she wasn’t playing. She was a symbol of how talent is being wasted by not giving women the chance to shine on the international stage on a widespread basis. The growing pains of women’s soccer are also the growing pains of women’s rights.