September 27th, 2007, Hangzhou, China. That year’s Women’s World Cup was supposed to be something of a revenge tour for the United States. After winning the first edition of the event in China in 1991, and then again on home soil in 1999, the US was trounced in the semifinals of the 2003 event, losing 3-0 to Germany. And despite American triumph at the 2004 Olympic games, all eyes were on the World Cup, and gaining back the crown the team had lost. The 2007 squad was a visible link from legendary past to hopeful future: people like Kristine Lilly and Brianna Scurry, members of the past World Cup championship squads, were still with the team, while at the same time, future stars like Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd were making their names known. It seemed like an ideal mix of youth and experience.
Instead, the US ran into a wall in the semifinals, not even managing to earn the right to play Germany in the tournament. They lost, four to nothing, the worst loss in any match the USWNT has ever played in its history.
That wall’s name was Marta. And she was about to change the entire trajectory of the women’s game.
Marta for Brazil...great footwork...can she score? Yes she can! Marta makes her mark.
I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.
Marta’s international debut did not come at the 2007 World Cup. She had actually appeared for Brazil four years before at the 2003 World Cup, and was an important member of the Brazilian team that took the US to extra time in the final of the 2004 Olympic tournament, earning a silver medal in Athens. She was even named the Women’s Player of the Year in 2006, at 20 years of age. But looking at the history of the game in her home country, it’s a small miracle that we ever got to see Marta play at all.
Men’s soccer in Brazil is legendary. It’s national team is the most successful international squad in the world, by a score of five World Cup championships to Germany and Italy’s four. Women’s soccer in Brazil, however, has long suffered from neglect. It was actually illegal for women to play soccer in Brazil from 1941 until 1979, seven years before Marta was born. To this day, there is no successful women’s professional soccer league in the country, and any efforts there to add legitimacy to women’s teams and tournaments there have been stifled by rampant sexism. The actual rulebook for one such championship in 2001 stated “we should emphasize the beauty and sensuality of the players to attract male viewers.” Unsurprisingly, this did not work. Marta was discovered on accident by a women’s coach, went pro at the age of 14, and had to leave Brazil as quickly as she could in order to actually make a living playing soccer. She went to Sweden at only 18 years old, just to be able to play the game professionally.
Her talent was undeniable, however. Brazil made waves at the 2004 Olympiad in Athens, Greece, by pushing the United States team to extra time, before an Abby Wambach goal won gold. The US had already managed to take down their boogeyman from the 2003 Olympics, Germany, in the semifinal. By contrast, Brazil’s women’s team had made a few positive impressions internationally up to that point, but had failed to do anything really of note. The silver medal was the first major accomplishment for the team, and 18-year-old Marta began to show her worth, with her dribbling skill and guile. People were soon making comparisons to Pele, the mythical Brazilian who is still the only player, man or woman, to win three World Cups as a player. And Pele, the man himself, agreed.
The women’s game in the early 2000s still looked much like the the physical game it had in the 90s, but Marta’s arrival signaled something of a sea change. She oozed technical ability every single time she touched the ball, and the creativity and forethought that were the hallmarks of her country’s soccer history. Simply put, Marta looked like a Brazilian when she played the game. Not like a women’s soccer player for Brazil. Just a Brazilian. And the 2007 World Cup was her moment to show off just how far the women’s game could actually go.
Marta for Brazil, great footwork. Can she score? Yes she can! Marta makes her mark.
Brazil’s tournament got off to a roaring start, decimating New Zealand 5-0, and hosts China 4-0, before finishing the group stage with a perfunctory 1-0 win over Denmark. Marta scored four goals throughout, and followed it up with a high-scoring thriller against Australia in the quarterfinals, scoring a penalty to help Brazil push into the semis by a score of 3-2.
Brazil and Marta had earned a reputation as a high-flying, attack-minded squad. But the US was riding a 51-game unbeaten streak. Most expected the US women’s national team to handle Brazil, just as they had done three years before in Athens. That is, until the US opened the game with an own-goal in the 20th minute. Marta smelled blood. Seven minutes later, she cut through the US defense on the right side of the field, veering inside and slipping a shot into the net to go up 2-0.
Brazil attacking, in the box, Marta...looking, shooting low...Marta has scored! Brazil leads by two.
And, right before halftime, the US misery was compounded by Shannon Boxx’s second yellow card. The US would have to play the entire second half down a player, and down two goals. By the time Brazil added a third goal, the US had given up all hope of winning, subbing in two defenders. Yeah, that’s right! They subbed in two defenders while down three goals in a World Cup semifinal! One of the greatest programs in women’s soccer history! Brazil wasn’t just beating the US. They utterly demoralized them.
But Marta wasn’t finished with them yet. In the 79th minute, Marta received the ball outside the box, near the sideline, marked closely by US defender Tina Ellertson. Not the spot you would expect one of the greatest World Cup goals to ever be scored from. But Marta had other ideas, flicking the ball up with her first touch, and without a moment’s hesitation, hitting the ball out of the air with her heel, knocking the ball to Ellertson’s left, while Marta pivoted and ran around Ellertson’s opposite side so quickly Ellertson couldn’t even begin to foul her. She collected the ball and proceeded to juke the onrushing Cat Whitehill out of her shoes, sending her stumbling the wrong direction, before completing the USA’s humiliation by finishing with aplomb. The crowd roared in appreciation. Brazilian broadcaster Luciano do Valle called it “a goal by a genius,” and it was impossible to disagree with him. For it to happen against the US, no less, made the goal all the sweeter.
Marta’s possession...ah, wonderful from Marta! Absolutely wonderful, now finishes...yes, she does! It’s one fo the great goals of the World Cup. It’s inevitably scored by the world’s greatest player. How they love it here in Hangzhou. Well, you can’t contain a talent like that. Absolutely breathtaking, Marta.
Brazil won the game 4-0. It is still the only time in the history of the United States women’s soccer program that the senior team has lost by a deficit of four goals.
Marta was the best player in the world before the 2007 World Cup. But her performance at the Cup, and especially her final goal against the United States, did more than just prove her dominance: it fundamentally shifted public perception of what the women’s game could be, and the way that women could play the game. Last year, the 2019 women’s World Cup was filled to bursting with players who had guile and technical ability to spare, and most of those players grew up watching Marta play. To say that she is the best women’s soccer player of all time is selling her short; Marta created the immensely popular women’s game you see today, by showing people just what was possible. She refused to be anything less than brilliant, and became a living legend in the process.