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I would like you to imagine a little town in the south of Brazil, close to the Argentine border. Like in every small town, there’s a main square. And like in every Brazilian square, there are kids playing football. Well, boys playing football. Except for one. In the middle of the boys, running, passing, shooting, there’s a six-year-old girl.
Playing football among boys was not difficult, at least not for me — not at all. They treated me very well.
The real difficulty was when I had to push the horrible, giant orange in front of them.
See, my father had a snack cart. He sold cachorros-quentes (hot-dogs), salgadinhos (small bites) and beverages in the square. His cart was shaped like an orange. A horrible giant orange. He would put the drinks inside, and then he would remove the lid of the orange, so the drinks were all in there and they would stay cold.
I hated to help him, but when I disobeyed him, or did something bad, he would make me help for a little while until he would finally allow me to go and play football.
The worst punishment I could receive was to take the cart to him on the other side of the square. I was ashamed of being seen with the giant orange in front of my little friends — childish, I know. But my father would make me cross the square, on purpose.
Of course, he did it as a life lesson.
Oh, damn, not this, I’d think. But I would go anyway.
It was the first small sacrifice I did for football.
The truth is that I could only think about football. And I was very fortunate that my dad was always next to me, in the square. From the cart, he could see me all the time, which meant that I could play for hours every afternoon while he worked.
School in the morning, football in the afternoon. That was my life in Roque Gonzales, my town. There was no thinking about the future, no other passions. It was just the ball. All day. A perfect childhood in a peaceful town.
My dad, Elizeu, had always been passionate about football. He loved to play, and whenever he had a match, I was always there, watching. But he never forced me to play soccer. It came from me. It must have been a pleasant surprise.
There’s a funny story he never told me, but that I learned later from my mother. When she was pregnant with me, they did the ultrasound and discovered that I was a girl … my dad heard the result, threw himself on the bed, looked up at the ceiling and stayed there for hours. He was annoyed, really. He wanted a boy. Of course, this was before I was born. And now he laughs about it.
I’m their only child, and I like to think that I’ve compensated both of them, because my mom wanted a girl, and my dad eventually got a perfect partner: As soon as I started to walk, I just wanted to hang out with him. Go fishing, play ball, whatever. It was so much fun.
If I look back, my first memory is riding a motorcycle with him around that square. Do you know those wooden bikes for toddlers? I had one that I liked very much, and my dad would pull me behind his motorcycle with a rope while I tried to keep my balance.
When I grew up, it was again me and my dad on a motorcycle. But this time, no wooden bike — this time, for real.
He would take me to training and to play games in different cities on his motorcycle. Sometimes we would go to two different cities in the same day, because it’s what I wanted.
My mom, at first, did not understand the world of women’s football, but she never tried to stop me. If I was happy doing it, that was what mattered to her. And when she attended a game of mine for the first time, she really liked it.
As a kid, you just take football as a joke. But then when you grow up, you start having deep thoughts. At one point I started to dream about playing football for real. It’s what I did best. It’s what I liked. It’s what I wanted.
But football also has the power to make you cry. I would learn what sacrifice really was when I was offered to play in Caçador, 600 kilometers away from home. I was only 14. The previous year I had played in Pelotas, but I would only go there on weekends, and then back home to normal life. But Caçador was another thing.
At Pelotas I had met Edvaldo, who was coach of Brazil’s U-17 team, and who also managed a club named Kindermann, very traditional in futsal. He knew Pelotas had no lodge where I could board, and that I had a weekends-only deal, so he invited me to go to Kindermann, where I would be able to train every day. It was a serious offer from a national team coach, so I had to discuss it with my parents. Accepting the offer would mean moving away from home at a very young age.
I remember the trip as if it was today. My dad drove me there. They showed everything to me — the facilities, the housing, the training pitches, the school. One of the things that I recall is my dad taking me downtown to buy all the things needed to have a home.
That moment I understood that I was leaving everything behind. My friends. My family. My school. My square.
When my dad gave me a hug and left, he was trying to hold his emotions. But I could see what he was feeling deep inside.
How am I going to leave my only child here?
My parents were very brave to let me do it, and I thank them until today.
The first day in the lodge, once my father had left, I felt desperate. For the first time in my life I did not have anyone to share my feelings with. One minute you’re full of friends, full of family, and out of nowhere you are surrounded by strangers, and you do not even know who they are.
During training sessions, it was all right, I was happy. But back in the lodge, it was complicated. In the first month, I cried like hell. I missed them all. And I was also used to living at home, with my mom doing everything for me. I had no idea how to wash my clothes, for instance.
But I told myself that I had to hang on at least another month.
My mind was very clear: If this is what you want for your life, stay. If you can’t take it anymore, then you’ll just head back home and do something else.
Sacrifice. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Coming from where I came from, it was even more difficult. Roque Gonzales is really far from the big cities. That made things even more complicated.
The first time I attended a training camp for the U-17 national team, for instance, I had to take a night bus, around 11 p.m., from my town to Porto Alegre, arriving at 6 in the morning. From there, I had go to the airport and then take a flight to Rio de Janeiro. Once in Rio, I had to go to the mountains, in Teresópolis.
I was exhausted. I had never travelled by plane before. That same night, we had the first official team meeting. There were like 10 officials and coaches introducing themselves. I was lying on a sofa, listening, and somehow, I fell asleep.
Yes, I was sleeping on my first day with the national team. Not a bright start, was it?
In that first week, I did not open my mouth. The girls even asked if I did not speak or if I was dumb.
Sacrifice. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
“Don’t you talk, girl?”
I was very ashamed and I could not say anything.
Sometimes, your emotions are reflected on the pitch. Luckily for me, it was different. In the training sessions, I forgot about everything that was happening and I would do well. Many were left aside because they were nervous or sad or homesick. At that age, 15 days away from home seemed like a year.
Edvaldo always said that when he saw me sleeping in that first meeting, he did not even know what to say.
“What is she doing here? She won’t last two days.”
But here I am, 10 years later. It is amazing how far this game has taken me.
In 2015, when I was 20, I played in my first World Cup, in Canada, with all the stars. I was much more mature by that time, but still, when someone like Marta speaks to you, you only try to answer. You’re too nervous to make conversation, and so sometimes you give funny answers. They put me as her roommate, and for me this was surreal. It seemed like a lie. I remember she kept playing Candy Crush on her iPad all the time, and I kept watching cartoons. I had found The Simpsons on TV, and Marta thought this was funny.
“Don’t you want to watch something else?” she asked me.
The only thing I dared to say was, “No, I like cartoons, thanks.”
This is something I will always remember. Everyone dreams of playing in a World Cup, but when I think about having Marta as my roommate, I have to smile. It’s just as special as what happened on the pitch.
If 2015 was all about smiles, the Olympics the next year left me in tears.
For me, being in Rio was going from heaven to hell. In the quarterfinals, we played Australia to a scoreless draw and the match went to a penalty shootout. I was sent in late in extra time, so I could take one of the penalties. I knew it was my mission, and I was happy that I scored….. and that we won. In the semifinals against Sweden, I played the whole second half. We completely dominated, but we couldn’t score. Again the game went to penalties, but this time I ended up missing my shot — the final one. If I said I did not feel the pressure, I’d be lying. I knew we had 70,000 people at the Maracanã, cheering for Brazil.
When Sweden scored to win the match, I felt my world was falling apart. People said that we should have won it during the 90 minutes, but I knew I had the chance on my foot. I tormented myself for months.
“It hurts now, but it will pass,” everybody would tell me. I had to deal with that internal battle, and get it out of my chest. But after 10 years with the national team, and so many beautiful moments, I know I couldn’t be that cruel with myself. I had to deal with it.
I would like to erase that last Olympics image with a good World Cup performance. And I still imagine winning the gold medal in Tokyo in 2020 to close the circle — so that the memory doesn’t torment me anymore.
We know that Brazil needs a title or an Olympic medal, because of our history in football. But we also know that this is not going to change our reality, because women’s football has to be solved from below. Starting with the basic categories.
It’s not: “Oh, my God, Brazil is world champion and this will fix all problems!”
No, it won’t happen.
It’s about opening doors, knowing that we could contribute a lot to the development of women’s football in the country. Today, we are the voices of these women. So we have to represent them in the best possible way. A World Cup gives you visibility, but women’s football — it’s not just about sport. It’s about equality. Even women who do not like football are in this fight.
The important thing, girls, is that you need to be happy doing what you are doing. Of course, I love to make my family and friends feel proud. But what really matters is that we wake up every day happy with going to training, with playing football, with dealing that things that are not easy. And we keep going.
Women’s football — it’s not just about sport. It’s about equality. Even women who do not like football are in this fight.
When we were coming back from the World Cup in Canada, we had to fly over the Bermuda Triangle, and it was a very bad flight. I’m telling you, I’d never been so scared in my life. My legs were shaking, I couldn’t control them. Some of my teammates were saying that they did not want to play anymore, that they did not want this life anymore. But I didn’t think that. My thoughts were more like, Dude, we go through a few tough things, but this is football. We like it.
It has never crossed my mind what I would have done without football. For me, real fear would be not being able to play. You go through difficult situations, and in return, you travel the world, doing what you like. Football has allowed me to grow up mentally, to meet people, to make friends. Football has even taken me to the U.S., to play in the NWSL.
This game is a gift.
From the square with my father’s giant orange cart, from the first time my mother watched me playing, to this moment, everything happened so fast.
I miss all that, and even today, when I move places, I still feel like I’m adapting. But my mindset, since the day I left home, has been the same.
I am not going to give up on my dream.
The little girl is now a footballer.
It was worth the sacrifice.