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A última dança

A reflection on what may be Marta’s final - and best - chance to win the World Cup.

France v Brazil: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

At the end of the semifinal match in Le Havre, Brazil had left it all on the field and come up just short. Amandine Henry’s stoppage time goal had propelled the home side on while sending the Brazilians packing. As the teams left the pitch, Marta gave an interview that four years later still elicits an emotional reaction, even among those who don’t speak Portuguese.

“No doubt this is a special moment. We have to take the chance. I mean, we have to treasure this. We demand so much, you know? We demand support, but it needs to be appreciated. This is just a very emotional moment. I would have liked to be here smiling, but here I am crying with joy. That’s the most important thing: Cry at the beginning so that you can smile in the end. It’s wanting more. It’s taking care of yourself more. It’s training more. It’s being ready to play 90 minutes and able to play 30 minutes, 40 minutes more. This is what I ask of all Brazilian girls. There is not going to be a Formiga forever. There won’t be a Marta forever. There’s not going to be a Cristiane. The future of women’s football is depending on you to survive. Think about what I’m saying. Value it more. Cry at the beginning so that you can smile in the end.”

Marta has been as synonymous with A Seleção as anyone living or dead. In 2007 she put Brazil on her back to get to the World Cup Final, losing to Germany 2-0. It was a loss in penalties in the quarterfinals in 2011 that undid their hopes, followed by a 1-0 loss to Australia in the 2015 Round of 16 and a gutting loss to hosts France in 2019 that has kept her from lifting the trophy.

In league play, she has no equal. She won four Damallsvenskan titles in a row with Umeå from 2005-2008, won a Copa do Brasil in 2009 with Santos, won a WPS championship with FC Gold Pride in 2010 and one with Western New York Flash in 2011, won the Damallsvenskan again in 2012, this time with Tyresö. While she didn’t win a league championship in 2013, she proceeded to win two more Damallsvenskan championships with Rosengård in 2014 and 2015. She won the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2003-04 with Umeå, was runner-up in 2006-07, 2007-08, and runner-up in the successor UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2013-14 with Tyresö. She won the Copa Libertadores in 2009 with Santos, was in the top three for FIFA World Player of the Year every year from 2004 to 2014, winning an unprecedented five times before it was re-branded the Best FIFA Women’s Player, which she won in 2018.

If we could somehow live to see the heat death of the universe, we wouldn’t see a run like that again.

2023 SheBelieves Cup - Canada v Brazil Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Of course, time waits for no one. Certainly not mere mortals like you and I, but also for the deities of sport. Formiga has retired from international play, and Cristiane has retired from playing altogether. Marta is still going, however missing almost the entirety of 2022 with a torn ACL. At 37, time is not waiting for her either.

Even if she doesn’t win a World Cup this year, her status as the greatest footballer of her generation is beyond doubt, as is her status as one of the best ever. But this could still be her year. Brazil’s new generation is hitting its stride, and Marta doesn’t need to be the sole focus anymore. She’s surrounded by players like Debinha and Geyse, who are coming into the mastery of their craft. Marta can (and most likely will) play an important role, but unlike every other World Cup she’s appeared in, she doesn’t have to this time.

It also helps that everyone else in the World Cup looks vulnerable. Reigning champions United States are in transition, with an old guard hanging on for one more run at glory while questions abound about the roster makeup. Germany took Zambia for granted in a friendly and lost 3-2, showing that they might not be as formidable as they seem to think they are. Australia and (especially) New Zealand are decent enough, but decent enough has never won a World Cup. And a multitude of federations from Canada to Nigeria to Argentina to Zambia to Colombia are feuding with their teams, setting the stage for the power players off of the pitch to ruin things for the players on the pitch.

Brazil doesn’t have that. Any problems with the federation have been tamped down enough that the focus has been on the tournament. The players all realize this is the last chance for one of the greatest players that has ever lived.