Monday August 15th, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO — A week ago, when the Brazilian Olympic men’s soccer team was struggling and the country’s women’s team was rampant, a Brazilian man told a “joke” at a dinner party in Rio’s tony Leblon neighborhood. He said Marta, the five-time women’s World Player of the Year, was having a sex-change operation that day so that she could help the Brazilian men in their game that night.

It was equal parts crass and (I think) complimentary—indeed, Marta has been fantastic at times in these Olympics—but it was another example of a trend here that’s left me queasy.

All around Brazil, there have finally been cheers and full stadiums for Marta and Brazil’s women’s team, which will meet Sweden in a nearly full Maracanã Stadium in the Olympic semifinals on Tuesday (noon ET, NBCSN). That’s a tremendous development for Brazilian women’s soccer, of course, not least because the Brazilian public, professional soccer clubs and the nation’s soccer federation have largely ignored their talented women’s players in the past.

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But over the past two weeks, the tone of Brazil’s public support for its women’s team and Marta has invariably been couched in terms of the men’s team, and that’s a shame. It’s as though the Brazilian women can’t stand alone on their own merits, of which there are many.

After her first game of the Olympics, Marta was reasonably miffed when a journalist asked her if she was “the Neymar of women’s soccer.” It was insulting in two ways: 1. Marta has accomplished more in her career than Neymar has, and 2. Why do we need to bring men’s soccer into this anyway? Her sensible response: “Marta is Marta, and Neymar is Neymar.”

Then there was the now-famous photograph taken at a stadium during the Olympics, in which a Brazilian child is wearing a Neymar Brazil No. 10 jersey with NEYMAR scratched out in magic marker and replaced with MARTA. On the one hand: A cool moment for Brazilian women’s soccer, especially since it’s so hard to find official Marta jerseys in sports stores.

On the other hand: Marta’s success doesn’t need to come at Neymar’s expense, as if popularity is some sort of zero-sum game.

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Now that the Brazilian men’s team has gotten its act together and reached the Olympic semifinals, we’re set for what could be an unforgettable week of Brazilian futebol. The Brazilian women and men have a chance to win Olympic gold medals in the cathedral of global soccer, the Maracanã Stadium.

Sadly, Brazil’s women’s national team has almost never played in the Maracanã. Marta hasn’t competed in the stadium since the 2007 Pan American Games final, in which a crowd of nearly 70,000 saw Brazil’s full national team win 5–0 against a U.S. Under-20 team that included Tobin Heath, Lauren Holiday, Kelley O’Hara and Alyssa Naeher (as well as a head coach named Jill Ellis). Since then, Brazil’s women have played 36 games in Brazil, but not once in the Maracanã.

Strangely, Brazil’s men’s national team hasn’t been seen at the Maracanã in recent years, either, having played its last 15 home games outside Rio de Janeiro since its 3–0 Confederations Cup final victory over Spain on June 30, 2013. (Of course, the Brazilian men could have ensured a game at the Maracanã by reaching the 2014 World Cup final, which they failed to do.)

Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images Sport

Yet instead of viewing the four Maracanã games this week as huge opportunities for Brazil’s women and men independent of each other, the tone of the Brazilian media coverage has been about Brazil’s women versus its men. Here was one question in Monday’s press conference from a Brazilian journalist for Brazil’s women’s coach Vadão:

“There’s a lot of pressure for the women’s players because you have a division in the country between the men and the women. It comes from the famous picture that was publicized of a little boy with a shirt that had NEYMAR crossed out and MARTA written underneath. And Brazilians are feeling very strange with that because they’re being more motivated by the women’s team than the men’s team. So how do you look at this pressure toward your players?”

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Vadão, a former men’s player, responded, “Before arriving in Rio … we had a dynamic with the psychologist. The question was: What are the factors that are interfering in the team inside and outside? That means the media, the public, the external factors. So we have already discussed that among us, and we are aware of the pressures we are suffering as a team.

“The comparison between men’s and women’s soccer has always been present in Brazil,” the coach continued. “And the last days generated a lot of pressure. Both the women and the men always exchange messages among themselves, so that’s very important. So we live in harmony between the teams. The men in the last matches have been recovering, so that means it will reduce the pressure. But we are still suffering lots of pressure because the public says we have to get the gold.”

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When you’re observing a culture at a press conference, sometimes the questions are as revealing as the answers. This was one of the better questions from a Brazilian journalist on Monday: “Lately, we have seen the feminist movement has been growing up. In Brazil we have alarming data regarding violence against women. So through a campaign that has been carried out by women’s soccer players, how do you think it can contribute to equality in Brazil? Because soccer has been a male sport. How do you think you can contribute to the movement?”

“Our hope is exactly that,” Vadão replied. “When the president [of the Brazilian federation] asked us what we will do to improve women’s soccer to compete in equal conditions [as the men], we showed that women with training and support and food [in training camp] are able to do the same thing apart from the medals. That’s our main contribution. With the same conditions they will show the same results. That’s soccer.”

It’s possible, of course, that having Brazil’s women viewed in relation to its men is part of the process when it comes to gaining popularity—that eventually we’ll get past that and the women’s team can be discussed in its own independent context. And one can only hope that the Brazilian women’s Olympic run will bring about the kind of support here that has been almost non-existent before.

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“That’s our main goal, because we have been trying to develop women’s soccer,” Vadão said. “We don’t have the same situation compared to the U.S., Sweden, Canada, Japan, France or Germany. In the schools we don’t teach soccer for girls. There are very rare situations where we have soccer for girls where they begin playing at 13, 14 or 15 years old in clubs. Before that age they play by themselves. The hope we have is this is the first stage to having the motivation to develop the sport in the country.”

For Brazilian women’s soccer, winning this week in the raucous Maracanã would help even more. For all the talk about Brazil’s men never having won an Olympic gold medal, we’ve heard a lot less about how the Brazilian women have yet to do so either. And for all of Marta’s individual awards, this week could be a crowning moment for her career in the aspect that counts the most: Team success.

“She really deserves the gold medal,” said Vadão, “but all of them are involved, like Formiga and Cristiane and the rest.”

And if that happens, if the Brazilian women win a gold medal in their country’s most popular sport, let’s hope we can commemorate that achievement on its own. Without having to bring up their male counterparts.

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