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This article is a translation of one that was originally written in Portuguese.
Representing Brazil is always a great honor for me. When I wear the Brazilian team shirt, I feel that I’m representing not only my dream, but that of all girls and women who dream of seeing our sport at the top.
It’s been a long time, but I can still remember the first time I shared the same pitch with legends like Michael Jackson (Mariléia dos Santos), Marta and Formiga.
Suddenly I’m chasing a ball and looking to the side, as if I’m hypnotized: Wow, dude, that is Formiga!!
Just playing with references like them makes you feel a different energy. It’s like, Go ahead, believe and live this moment. We are together now.
They dreamed of better women’s soccer, fought for it throughout their careers. And today, if we can enjoy the greater visibility of the sport, it is thanks to the efforts of all the pioneers who leave a legacy beyond titles.
Jackson and Formiga are no longer in the field. But Marta is still on our side. In this Copa America, we are seeking a spot in another World Cup, with hopes of keeping the flame of the long-awaited Olympic medal burning. We are at the beginning of the walk. Even so, we already feel the weight of responsibility.
When entering the pitch, we represent our dream and theirs. We play for us and for them.
Everyone has a dream that deserves to be respected. If I’ve fulfilled mine, it’s because the struggle of those who came before me was worth it. And now it’s my turn to help the next ones fight for theirs too.
I found my inspiration in soccer very early on.
When I was just a little girl, my sisters, Katia and Rubiana, and I would wake up in the mornings to watch the Seleção play. Kids on our street would decorate the houses with flags, paint the pavement, and celebrate in the street when they scored. It’s not the same anymore, but back then the whole community would come together.
I got my first ball from Rogerio, our P.E. teacher, who lived across the street from us. And up the hill there was a small square near the bakery where my sisters, cousins, neighbors and I would kick it around. When I first played soccer, I wanted to blend in, to be like my sisters and my friends.
But I’ve stood out ever since I started. People on my street noticed that I was different and said that I had what it took to be successful, before I even had an idea of what “success” was.
I wanted to play soccer to leave everything else behind.- Debinha
Standing out wasn’t always a good thing. The boys made jokes when I played with them and girls at school teased me for wearing sporty clothes. The bullying worried my mom. She wanted to protect me, so she told me to play with the girls, to dress more feminine, to tie my hair tighter.
But I just wanted to be me. I wanted to go out on the street barefoot and play soccer with my friends.
I wanted to play soccer to leave everything else behind.
I understand more about addiction now, but at the time I didn’t get why my father wouldn’t just stop drinking. Couldn’t he see how amazing he was when he was sober? Didn’t he get how much quitting would mean to us?
When he was sober and hanging out with us, he was the best dad in the world. He’d even take me fishing and biking. But most of the time he was either drunk or at work.
It was like he was right there, and all he had to do was not drink. In a way, he had one job. To me, it sounded so simple, so easy, but he reached for the bottle like it was his lifeline.
Even when he was drunk, my dad was still my dad. Some alcoholics are violent, but my dad never harmed us. He didn’t throw things or threaten us — that’s not the kind of man he is. He’s gentle, quiet, affectionate.
I mean, my dad was the softie in the family. When my mom didn’t want me to play soccer ’cause of the bullying, my dad had my back. Maybe it was because he had three daughters, or because he used to play, or because he always wanted a son who would play, but he had this whole leave her alone thing going on.
When it came to soccer, he just got it.
Maybe that was my chance ... had I throw it all away?- Debinha
His drinking did take a toll on our family, though. Sometimes my mom would cry while he was drunk. My sisters and I would lock ourselves in our bedrooms and cry, too, thinking things would never change.
Around that time, I really threw myself into soccer and everything started to change, including the time I spent with my family and the issues at home.
My first trial at Santos FC when I was 14. I got selected, but Santos was hundreds of miles away from Mina Gerais. I had friends, family, a whole life there. How was I supposed to leave that all behind overnight?
I didn’t. Not when I was that young, not when I thought I’d get another shot some day.
But then people kept asking me why I didn’t go. I started to wonder, Maybe that was my chance ... had I throw it all away?
How are you supposed to know what to do when you’re that young?
Luckily, I had another chance the next year. Mrs. Marisa and Mr. Juninho, my teachers, helped arrange a trial for me at Saad in Monte Sião. I had to get my mom to sign a paper so I could go the next day. Asking her to let me go to the trial was not easy….
The memory still flashes up like scenes in a stop-motion film. I show up to her work.
I beg her to let me go.
I cry, and then cry harder when she starts crying.
At the time, those few moments felt like they lasted forever. I’m the youngest in the family, right? My mom didn’t want her little girl leaving home, and I knew this would be the last time I’d see her for several months. Both of us were a wreck, but at the end of the day, she gave up her happiness for my own.
Leaving my family was the most challenging part of chasing my dreams. It took everything I had to leave my mom crying at the factory gate, and that image was burned in my mind for months while I was away.
But I did it because I had to.
Two days into the trial at Saad, they made me an offer. This time I told myself, There’s no going back.
This wouldn’t be like kicking the ball around in the square on Sete de Setembro street or playing with my friends at school. This was joining Saad, a football club that went undefeated from 1994 to ’96 and that had achieved the two highest accolades in Brazilian women’s football, the Troféu Brasil in 1989 and Circuito Brasileiro de Futebol Feminino in 2003. This was the real deal.
My biggest dream was to play soccer, but it was also to give my family a better life.- Debinha
I went, but it wasn’t easy. It was my first time away from home, and Saad wasn’t paying us a salary yet, so I was struggling to support myself. Sometimes I would ask my dad if he could send me 50 reais to help with things like soap and shampoo. But my family was going through tough times, too.
They were struggling to make ends meet, and my mom was having a really hard time with me away. I didn’t know how bad it was at the time, but she was struggling with depression. The tears at the factory gate had been just the beginning….
My sisters wouldn’t tell me how upset she was because they didn’t want me to come home, to give up on my dreams. They knew I would’ve left it all behind if I thought I could help her feel better.
And they were right. I made it through by thinking that what I was doing was challenging, but it was a chance to make everything better for my family.
For every sacrifice my family made, every time they suffered because I was chasing my dreams, I made a promise to myself that I would reward them for all they had done for me. My biggest dream was to play soccer, but it was also to give my family a better life.
Thankfully, I found another family in the team at Saad. Mariléia dos Santos — nicknamed Michael Jackson — was like my teammate, older sister, stand-in mom, and psychologist all in one. She was from Campinas, less than two hours away, so she’d let me tag along on weekends since I couldn’t go all the way home. We’d go to her house, go bowling, escape the club atmosphere a bit.
And on the pitch, she was one of the most composed, joyful players. She had no problem telling us to make corrections, and she was always encouraging us, too, saying things like, “Go for it!” and, “Be happy!”
Wow, the joy she had ... it made me want to be just like her. I mean who wouldn’t want to be just like her ... Michael Jackson was everything.
She helped me come out of my shell as a homesick young player, suddenly playing among superstars.
It was crazy ... to go from sitting in front of the TV watching games, back when I just wanted to run barefoot in the street with my friends, to being on the same pitch as players like Michael Jackson.
That wasn’t the last time I would feel homesick. After a year at Saad, I got offered a pretty good deal in Korea. This time, I was on the other side of the world from home. That image of my mom crying, it stung twice as hard.
I hadn’t come all that way just to play for a paycheck.- Debinha
I was even more homesick during the short time I was in Korea than when I had first left home for Saad. After just 10 days in Korea, I was ready to leave.
I was young, up-and-coming, so I thought I’d have more opportunities to play abroad in the future. I didn’t want to sell out just to be miserable.
It wasn’t worth it. I hadn’t come all that way just to play for a paycheck.
I’d learned back on Sete de Setembro that soccer was meant to be enjoyed, that soccer was meant to feel like home, and I was going to chase that feeling even if it meant making a bit less money.
So as soon as possible, I packed my bags. All of them.
And I didn’t return.
Thankfully, there was a place for me at Centro Olímpico in Brazil, so I stayed there until I got an offer to play in Norway. And once I was in Norway, there were Brazilian players who made me feel at home. We cooked meals together and quickly became family.
The day I got the offer to play for the Brazil first team was the best day of my life. One of the Brazilian confederation coordinators called me to tell me I was being summoned, and I ran into my bedroom and cried. I called my family right away, and they all started crying, too.
These weren’t the same kind of tears my mom and I had shared all those years ago at the factory ... these were tears of joy, of pride. These were tears that said, It all paid off. These were tears that made everything — every single sacrifice — worth it.
Don’t get me wrong, playing in the 2019 FIFA World Cup was overwhelming, but it was also a dream come true. Despite having already played in a FIFA U-20, I knew that representing Brazil’s main team would be one of the greatest moments of my life.
After that first World Cup game, the pressure disappeared and everything started to click. It was like I had no choice but to live in the moment, to soak up every second. I think that eagerness and excitement is what helped me play so well.
Since I was playing alongside so many of the greats — Formiga, Marta, Cristiane — I just wanted to go out there and do my best, not just for me, but for them.
Playing in the World Cup reminded me that soccer was bigger than me. It reminded me to play like I was a kid in the streets, running around with people I looked up to. It reminded me to step out onto the pitch and forget about all of the doubt and darkness. It reminded me to live in the moment.
I’m no longer a little girl chasing after a ball on the street. I’m 30 now, playing professionally for the North Carolina Courage. Since my first summons in 2011, I’ve made over 60 appearances with the Brazil national team. Now, all I can think about is winning my second Copa America title.
It’s been a long journey, and I want to remember as much of it as possible.
I’ve gotten a bunch of tattoos over the years. Each one reminds me of what it’s taken for me to get to where I am.
I’ve got FAMÍLIA on my forearm.
RESILIENCE on my leg.
The Olympic rings on my wrist.
But the one that means the most to me — the one that explains who I am and my journey — is on my left calf.
It says, WHEN I THINK I’VE REACHED MY LIMIT, I FIND THAT I HAVE THE STRENGTH TO GO BEYOND….
No matter where I am, no matter how tough things are, this reminds me I have what it takes to keep going.
When I talk to my sisters about the past, we mostly focus on how much better things are now. It’s like, Dude, look at everything that happened and look at where I am now. Remember how bad it was before?
We’ve made it so far, all of us. I’m playing professionally, my mom’s depression is better, and my dad recovered from his alcoholism.
He’s my No. 1 fan, always telling people when I’m playing and when I’m coming home.
My family shaped my resilience. And the example of everyone who fought for women’s soccer is my great inspiration as an athlete — my strength to go beyond and keep dreaming.
For us and for them.