Despite producing some of the finest players that the game has ever seen, Brazil has been slow to embrace women's football. With a progressive government in place, and a true legend in Marta leading the fight, is the revolution gathering pace?
During the course of the twentieth century many Latin American countries experienced enormous migrations to the rapidly urbanising cities, allowing football’s popularity to grow exponentially and become a significant factor in the formation of local, regional and national identity.
In Uruguay the game is so deeply entrenched in the national psyche that the following saying is frequently heard: ‘Otros paises tienen sus historias, Uruguay tiene su futbol’ (Other countries have their history - Uruguay has its football.’)
However, the country where the juxtaposition of football and national identity is most obvious is Brazil. In 1938 eminent sociologist of the time Gilberto Freyre spoke of a mulatto Brazilian spontaneity and creativity that lay in stark contrast to the European style. Freyre sought to express ideas of national identity based upon otherness In this case the nascent individualistic football being played in Brazil provided a perfect example of this.
An important aspect of football’s influence on the formation of identity that is often not considered is that of gender. Football, of course, in the traditional Latin American mindset, is intrinsically linked to manhood as explained succinctly by Pelé:
‘Toda criança do mundo que joga futebol quer ser Pelé, o que significa que tenho a responsabilidade de mostrar a eles como ser um jogador de futebol, mas também como ser um homem (Every kid around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pele. I have a great responsibility to show them not just how to be like a soccer player, but how to be a man.)’
Football has long been a foundation stone of patriarchal society in Brazil. Indeed, in 1941, football’s position as a bastion of masculinity was institutionally consolidated by a 1941 government decree ensuring that women playing football were not only frowned upon, but actually breaking Brazilian law.
Sadly, prohibition was to remain in force until 1975 meaning that when second wave feminism ushered in the professionalisation of women’s football in the early 1970s in countries like the United States, Sweden and Germany, the mere idea of a woman kicking a football remained anathema in Brazil.
Generally, success in Women’s football has largely been achieved by countries which take a progressive approach to social issues like gender equality, and thus make the corresponding effort to accommodate the development of women’s football. Such is the clamour for gender equality in countries like Norway, for example, that a law has been passed that requires a 40% quota of women in all company boardrooms. Whether or not one agrees with this type of state enforced quota system, there can be little doubt that this type of society is more conducive to the growth of professional women’s football than a society with deeply entrenched gender inequality and prejudices.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the bastion of machismo that is Latin America, Brazilian women, in fact, took to the field as early as 1921 in São Paulo. The novelty factor of the game amused locals so much that exhibition games were arranged as part of circus acts.
Crucially however, the prejudices of the Brazilian establishment ensured that the game never professionalised, a situation that remains today, despite waves of progressive social reform in other sectors of society from the hugely popular Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) of Lula da Silva and current incumbent Dilma Rousseff.
It’s fair to say that the marginalisation of women in Sport is widespread across Latin America, and that for much of the 20th Century women playing football was certainly not a mainstream activity in any other Latin American nation.
Even in other mainstream sports which are less readily associated with masculinity, like Tennis for example, only Maria Esther Bueno, who triumphed three times at Wimbledon, comes to mind as an example of a successful Brazilian woman.
Of course, breaking into the male-dominated sporting world is not a problem exclusive to Latin America. Gabby Logan’s recent documentary exploring sexism in the UK sporting world gave an insight into the difficulties faced by women trying to establish themselves both in media positions and at boardroom level in the case of Karren Brady.
The extent of the problem was memorably highlighted by the monumental ignorance of the president of the world game, Sepp Blatter. Even by his rather high standards of buffoonery the suggestion that beautiful female players ought to ‘wear tighter shorts in order to pique people’s interest' was excruciatingly cringeworthy.
The presupposition in Blatter’s statement that, in his view, women’s sport will only sell by providing eye-candy for the male audience appeared, at best, rather dated and at worst, extremely offensive to many sports fans.
The Brazilian media hardly batted an eyelid at Blatter's 2004 comment of course, instead choosing to focus on the media darling of the time: model turned keepy-uppy expert Milene Domingues. Domingues was loved by the Brazilian media for her traditional beauty pageant candidate looks and her femininity (which her website still alludes to).
Domingues, in her defence, showed more than a modicum of footballing talent, when she entered the Guinness Book of Records for the ‘keepy-uppy’ record (55,197 touches) and has played successfully in the Spanish Women's League for a number of years. She often appeared on the front-pages of Brazilian newspapers as a model and married Brazil’s best forward of that era, Ronaldo (they are now separated). She was part of the 2003 Women's World Cup as an unused sub, which rather belied her status of the most expensive women's player ever at £200,000. In summary, her 'marketing potential' was far greater than her football talent: think Anna Kournikova, or even David Beckham.
Against this historical backdrop came the emergence of As Canarinhas (the Brazilian Women’s football team) as a serious force. Considering the societal attitudes they came up against, the lack of a professional league in their homeland and the lack of support from their own federation, their rise is simply miraculous. The Swedish, Japanese and American women’s teams, to name a few examples, have achieved success because of, or at least with the support of their respective women’s football federations’ pro-active approach, the Brazilians have achieved success in spite of the inertia of theirs.
Brazil's women have won five of the last six Sudamericano Femeninos, twice won Olympic Silver, finished runners-up at the 2007 World Cup in China, and their standout player Marta Vieira Da Silva has been crowned the World Player of the Year on five consecutive occasions from 2006 to 2010 inclusive, only being dethroned in 2011 by Homare Sawa of the Japanese World Cup winning side of 2011.
In many interviews Marta has spoken of her childhood in North-Eastern Brazil, in the backwater of Dois Riachos, where she used to play football with boys. The state of Alagoas is among the poorest in Brazil with one of the highest levels of illiteracy. In her infancy Marta’s older brothers warned her not to play football, fearing an adverse machista reaction from members of the local community.
According to Tereza Vieira, Marta’s mother, her brothers would go as far as hitting her to prevent her from tarring the family name by participating in what they perceived to be such an innately male activity. Only with an admirable strength of character and perseverance did Marta manage to stay in the game she loved, and eventually be spotted by Helena Pacheco. From there she went on to shine at the inaugural Women’s Football Olympic event in Atlanta 1996 and got her break in the game.
Sadly however, in order to forward her career and compete with professionals, Marta had to leave Brazil, playing for Umeå IK of Sweden (where she won four consecutive Swedish Championships and a European Cup), Los Angeles Sol, Western New York Flash and most recently back in Sweden for Tyresö FF (whom she joined this February). Marta did briefly return to her homeland to join Santos in the inaugural Copa Femenina de Futebol Brasileira and the Copa Libertadores de Futebol Feminino, however the tournament featured girls as young as 14, and lacked the kind of professionalism that a high-level player needed to be able to compete at the highest level.
The out of touch gerontocracy at the helm of the CBF are showing few signs of rewarding the rise of the national side with the professional league a country Brazil's size deserves, as attitudes within the football federation haven't changed an awful lot since prohibition in 1941. For the first time in history, at least, Brazil has a female leader, or more importantly a democratic political agenda that seeks to redress inequalities across Brazilian society.
In Dilma Rousseff Brazil has a leader who clearly finds herself at odds with the male-dominated oligarchy of Brazilian football. Rousseff made no secret of her disdain for discredited long-time leader Ricardo Teixeira and has made no overtures about getting involved with the new leadership of the CBF (Brazilian Football Federation). Gender inequality remains a high priority for the Rousseff administration.
Even with a progressive Brazilian government which openly acknowledges many of the errors of the country's past it is difficult to overcome the ingrained prejudices of huge swathes of the Brazilian public overnight. It is unlikely that Gray and Keys gate would ever have happened in Brazil. In fact the Brazilian sports media habitually exhibit outrageous prejudices without ever being challenged.
Despite an overall panorama that is far from ideal, a number of Brazilian women, like Cristiane, Daniela and Marta have shown millions of young Brazilian girls that the game doesn’t belong exclusively to men, and that success is possible.
At the beginning of the 20th Century Uruguay’s men triumphed in the Olympics (and World Cup) inspiring its South American neighbours to try and match them. Could we be seeing the same thing happen for Women’s football in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st Century?
You can read more from Mark at his blog.