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Dear 14-year-old Marta,
Get on the bus.
I know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re feeling.
Don’t think about it… How scared you are… How nervous you are… How everyone has said you can’t do it… That you shouldn’t do it…
Don’t think about any of that.
Just get on the bus.
This bus, if you can believe it, is going to take you on the three day’s drive to Rio de Janeiro.
This bus will leave behind your family and the 11,000 people in Dois Riachos. This bus will leave flat dirt roads for green countryside that will turn to mountains and then the city.
This bus … is going to take you to your dream, your dream of becoming a professional footballer.
And it’s going to take you to so much more.
It’s going to take you to European championships, World Cups, the Olympics, World Player of the Year awards (that’s not even a thing yet).
It’s going to take you to stadiums where you’ll play in front of tens of thousands of people.
It’s going to take you to places where jerseys and boots will be made just for you.
It’s going to take you all over the world, and your arrival is going to mean something. You’re going to be part of building the game in the U.S. A part of a new club in Orlando.
A part of making the game available to girls, in a way that it wasn’t made available to you.
I know, right now you can’t see all that. And it seems like a difficult decision to get on the bus. You don’t even know for sure what will happen when you get to Rio. But trust me when I say that after everything you’ve already gone through, you can do this.
You’ve already fought, Marta. You’re stronger than you realize.
Kevin C. Cox/FIFA/Getty Images
Growing up in a small town like Dois Riachos, you stood out. But not for your talent. No, you got weird looks and mean comments every day just because you were a girl. A girl who loved football.
There were no other girls in town playing football.
…and people made sure to let your mother know that.
“She isn’t normal.”
“It’s odd for a girl to be playing.”
“Why do you let her do that?”
It felt like Mãe wasn’t there for you. And in a way, she wasn’t. After your dad left when you were a baby, she had to take care of the four of us kids. She left at 5 a.m. to work on that plantation. Spending the whole day treating the soil, planting, only to come back late at night. Whenever it rained, she would catch the water to help grow food for the family to eat back home. When she wasn’t on the farm, she’d head over to city hall, where she’d clean and serve coffee. So you never saw her that much. She never really got the chance to come to your games or watch you play.
But she is there for you. Because every time — every single time — when someone in town came up to her, she always, always told them the same thing.
“Let her be.”
The thing is, in Mãe’s eyes, she wasn’t there, either. She wasn’t there to show you any differently. To show you how to “be a girl.” So all you know is watching football on TV and dreaming one day of playing professionally. All you know is growing up and playing with the boys in town.
But, only when they let you.
Because they always had that stupid plan. You can play, they’d say, but only on a team with the players from the neighborhood who weren’t that good.
Not that it mattered.
“I’ll play with whoever,” you tell them every time.
And it didn’t matter. Because even when you were with the boys who couldn’t play very well, your team still won. You dribble fast, you play in a short space and you think fast.
And you show them. Every. Single. Time.
You show them: You’re a girl, and you can play football.
No matter how many goals you score, though, the comments, the judging, the jokes — all that won’t stop. Even when you make it onto the local team, people mutter things as you walk by. You know your talent right now isn’t enough to make it change.
And those moments — while the boys are in the locker room and you’re by yourself, in some small bathroom off to the side, trying to tuck in your oversized football jersey into boys’ shorts that go well past your knees — they’re lonely.
For a while, football will be lonely.
Feng Li/Getty Images
Remember that one tournament only a few weeks ago? When your team from Dois Riachos played in Santana do Ipanema for a regional cup? You’d played in this tournament before, you’d even been recognized for your skill as one of the top players.
But it didn’t matter.
Because this year, another coach from another team said if they have to play against you, he’ll pull his whole team from the tournament.
“This isn’t a place for girls,” he said.
I’d like to say that the organizers or your team stood up for you. But we know that’s just not how it worked out. That’s just not how things were. So you were the one pulled from the tournament. Of course you were. It’s just easier that way, they’ll tell you.
Take the girl out.
So the boys can play.
Do you still remember the tears welling up in your eyes?
I know it doesn’t make sense to you right now. I know the question you ask yourself every day.
Why would God give me this talent, if no one wants me to play?
But use that. Use that for strength and motivation.
Use it to fight, Marta. Fight to prove everyone wrong — everyone who thinks there is no place for girls on the pitch.
Fight against their prejudice. Fight against the lack of support. Fight against it all — the boys, the people who say you can’t.
Fight to be accepted.
Because we both know it only takes one person to change things. That’s why you’re here right now, standing in front of this bus, right? There’s a man named Marcos — he’s from Rio and friends with your older cousin, Roberto, and your friend Luiz Euclides. Marcos knows some people and they’ve arranged for you to go to Rio with a chance to try out with the women’s side at Vasco da Gama.
Not even a guaranteed tryout, but it’s something. And it’s more than you’ll have if you stay in Dois Riachos.
Roberto asked Marcos to set it up and he helped pay for the bus fare to get you the ticket. I think he knows you can be something if you get out of Dois Riachos.
You know this, too.
And football will be your way out, it’ll be your way to success, to happiness. It hasn’t been easy, but, trust me, things will change.
But first, you’ll have to wait a little bit longer when you get to Rio. You’ll stay in a flat there with Marcos and his family while you wait for a call to come try out. You’ll sleep on a cot in the living room. And right beside you, every morning when you wake up, you’ll see your football boots sitting in the corner … just waiting.
You brought new boots for the tryout. But looking at them reminds you of your boots back home. The ones that got you to this moment.
You know the boots I’m talking about. The ones given to you by a grandfather of a teammate. Remember that day he gave them to you? No more training in bare feet. No more borrowing from someone else for a match.
Your very own pair.
No brand. Used. Oversized and stuffed with newspaper at the toe to make them fit.
The best boots in the world.
But you need to look the part of a professional. Just a little bit of confidence and these new boots, like you, will be waiting to prove themselves.
One day will pass.
The next day will come and go.
The phone doesn’t ring.
Still no call.
You’ll be wondering why you even came down here, with no try out even guaranteed. Only hope.
Just hold on and be patient. It won’t be until another few days, but you will finally get a call.
“It’s today,” the team will tell you.
And you’ll grab your boots and head to the pitch. When you get there, you’ll see something you’ve never seen before.
A field of women playing football.
Not fighting for spots. Not getting looks or stares. Just out there … on the field … playing.
It’ll be incredible.
But your shyness will take over. The senior team is out there along with the U19 squad, which you’ll join for a trial. And even though you’re finally among other girls playing football, you still feel a little … different. These are older, city girls. They’re cool, they’re professionals.
You’re a skinny 14-year-old, from a poor town and with a northern accent. Bicho do mato, they’ll call you. Hick, or someone from the backwoods.
You won’t open your mouth, too afraid they’ll make fun of how you talk. So you’ll do what you always do.
Let your football speak for you. Express yourself on the pitch.
And when you step onto the field, your first touch will be a kick so hard that it knocks the goalkeeper on her back when she tries to stop it.
And the ball will roll into the goal.
Heads will turn towards you. But the stares won’t be for the same reasons back at home. They won’t be staring at you wondering, Why are you here?
No, this time they’ll be wondering, Are you for real?
And then someone will finally speak. It’ll be Helena Pacheco, the coordinator of the women’s senior side.
“We want her with us.”
That’s right. You belong on the field. With them. Part of this game.
But this is just the beginning, because you’re going to be part of something else. You’re going to be part of changing the women’s game. Of showing other girls who felt they didn’t belong that they do belong.
That they belong, right there, on the pitch.
The game is going to grow, and you’re going to be there for it all. The Brazilian Football Confederation is starting a national league for women. In its first year, you’ll win MVP of the Under-19 Championship.
It’ll be tough — the money, well, it won’t be great. Just a small monthly stipend that you’ll send home to Mãe. You’ll stay with Marcos and his family again. It’s all you can afford.
But, you’re a professional footballer.
I want you to remember that. Because that’s what matters.
And don’t forget it. Especially when, after a year and half at Vasco, you’re going to get some news. The president of the club is cutting the women’s team. But this is just another obstacle, so keep going. Play futsal — it’ll get you a small allowance for matches on weekends. Because you can’t go back to Dois Riachos.
You can’t. Not yet.
Because you’re going to get called up to the the national team. And eventually, get another club contract for a team in Belo Horizonte.
You’ll go to the 2002 FIFA U19 Women’s World Championship in Canada. You’ll go to the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the United States.
And then something strange will happen.
A Swedish news station will be doing a feature on Robinho, who’s been playing really well for Santos. But they’ll also add a segment on the women’s game.
“There’s a young, promising player for the women’s team named Marta Vieira da Silva….”
You won’t think much of it — the program will air in Sweden, and that’ll be that.
But you’ll get a call from Sweden….
“Hello? Yes, I’m Odin Barbosa, and I work with the president of Umeå IK. And we’d like to sign you to play for us…”
Odin is speaking to you in Portuguese. So you’ll think it’s some prank. Because why would someone in Sweden be calling you? And talking in Portuguese? You couldn’t even point to Sweden on a map. Sure, you’ve played against them, but you know nothing about the country. Or whoever the hell is this guy is, or claiming to be.
Yeah… Do me a favor, think of a better response, will you? And hear Odin out. Because it’s not a joke. Which you’ll find out when the same Swedish journalist who did the segment tells you … this guy is for real.
And this club, Umeå IK, is for real too.
Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images
I know you’re not going to believe me when I tell you this, but this new, different country, it’s going to become a second home to you. It probably won’t feel that way when your plane lands and it’s so dark that you actually wonder if they can even play football here.
You’ll think, “What am I doing here?”
What you’re doing is making one of the best decisions of your life. The women’s game … it’s … different here. It’s taken seriously. You’re going to really become an athlete in Sweden. Honestly, without going to Sweden, you won’t become the player you do.
And that’s where it gets fun.
Remember how I said you’re going to be part of something? Well, in Sweden, it means bringing a little bit of your Brazilian style to the field. The game will be a little … tight, a little … strict. A little … systematic.
Teach them, Marta — how to improvise, how to express themselves.
And make some history.
A UEFA Women’s Cup…. seven league titles…. an 87-minute goal to win the Swedish Cup…. another Swedish Cup.
And then keep going, all over the world, playing football.
It’s amazing how much the game has changed for women. But, in many ways, you’ll find it’s always going to be just a little bit harder for girls. Leagues and clubs will start and shutter.
But one thing you’ll find — whether in Brazil, or Sweden, or now, being back in the United States with Orlando Pride — is that every woman shares something:
A complicated story … and a love for football that keeps driving them.
Language will be a barrier with many of the teams that you’re on. But playing alongside and against players like Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Christine Sinclair … you’ll see it. You won’t need the words. You’ll see the same drive, the same determination on the field.
It’s what comes after years of people telling you that you can’t do it, or that you don’t belong out there.
It’s the dedication to keep showing up, to keep putting everything you have out there while constantly facing prejudice, while constantly fighting for acceptance and respect.
So remember how alone you feel right now and listen when I tell you this: All over the world, there are other girls who feel the same. Girls who get stares, girls who get asked why they’re out there, girls who get pulled from tournaments and called names.
But that loneliness, it won’t last. And it won’t be long before you’re all playing together.
I know right now, at 14 years old, all you want to do is get away from Dois Riachos. So this is going to sound crazy, but one of the best moments of your career will happen there. You’ll go all over the world, but Dois Riachos is where it will hit you.
You’ll come home. It’ll be 2006 and you’ll have just won FIFA World Player of the Year for the first time. (That’s right, this is just your first.) There’ll be crowds of people welcoming you home. Everyone wants to see the hometown hero who’s come back. They’ll even drive you around in a fire truck.
You won’t be rejected anymore. The same people who said you were odd, that you couldn’t play — that you shouldn’t play — will be applauding as you go by.
You’re a woman. And you’re a footballer.
I know all of this seems so far away now, standing on the road looking at this bus. But it’s all right there. And the first step is only 2,000 kilometers away.
Believe in yourself. Believe in your instinct. And you’ll find out just why God has given you this talent.
You won’t ask why anymore. And neither will anybody else.
Get on the bus.