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Paving the way


Last week, for the first time ever, a press conference given by the coach of Brazil's men's team was dominated by the progress of the women.

There are five stars on the jerseys worn by the Brazilian national team -- one for each of the five World Cup wins. The road towards the sixth win started last Thursday, when coach Dunga called up his squad for the first two rounds of qualifiers for South Africa 2010.

A few hours earlier in China, Brazil's women had made it through to their first World Cup final, cutting the U.S. apart on their way to a 4-0 semifinal rout.

If the women were to go on and win the title, Dunga was asked, should Brazil's shirts carry a sixth star -- or a pink star -- in recognition of their achievement?

Dunga used the women as an example of the kind of sacrifice and dedication he requires from his players.

His theme for the day in the press conference was the willingness of Marta, the star player among Brazil's women, to place her extraordinary individual ability at the service of the collective, working back and searching for the ball, striving to make something happen on the field.

It's exactly the approach he says he wants to see from the big-name players in his squad.

We now know, of course, that there is no need for Brazil's jersey designers to worry about finding space for that pink star -- not yet, anyway. In a tightly contested and, at times, exhilarating final on Sunday, Marta missed a key penalty and Brazil went down 2-0 to a German side that went through the entire competition without conceding a single goal.

Even so, Brazil's women can look back on the tournament with enormous pride. And as they take the long flight back from China, they might even conclude that, although they aren't bringing the cup with them, they're coming home with mission partly accomplished.

That Thursday night, almost 11 hours after they had beaten the U.S., some important news appeared on the Web site of the Brazilian Football Confederation. In late October, it announced, a national cup competition for women will get underway in Brazil.

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"It will," continued the press release, "be the starting point for the staging of a national championship of women's soccer in the near future."

There is a strikingly defensive tone to the press release. It goes out of its way to mention the fact that Brazil's women's teams make more use than the men of the training facilities for the country's national sides situated in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro.

And it concludes with the assertion that federation president Ricardo Teixeira "is very enthusiastic" to set up national competitions for women, "a project which he has been conducting, without making a big noise about it, for some time."

This line might bring a wry smile to the face of some of the Brazilian players, who have suspected that the Brazilian federation has been stalling rather than working in silence. They have been on the receiving end of empty promises before. This time, it seems to be for real. And if it is for real, it's a direct result of the pressure they have applied by capturing public imagination with a succession of stylish wins.

A national league -- the eventual aim -- is an organizational challenge in a land where men's soccer frequently operates at a loss. And if the U.S. has problems supporting a women's league, then the difficulties in Brazil are greater still. But Brazil's performances in the World Cup have revealed not only the potential of the sport in the country, but also the urgent necessity of some kind of structure for the domestic game.

A glance down the Brazilian roster shows that the current lineup is almost exactly the same as the one that narrowly fell to the U.S. in the final of the '04 Olympics in Athens. Some of the reserves are stalwarts left over from the 1990s; fresh national competitions are needed for new players to start breaking through.

There should be no lack of hopefuls. Specialists in women's soccer in Brazil say that a tipping point was reached in July when the home team won the gold medal in the Pan-American Games, held in Rio. In truth, the triumph was something of a formality. Brazil, at full strength, was far superior to the opposition, and easily overcame a team of U.S. teenagers in the final.

But the key fact was that they did it in front of their own public, watched by a packed crowd in the giant Maracanã stadium and a big live TV audience.

In the wake of the win, coaches reported a dramatic change; parental opposition to women's soccer diminished sharply. Some who had been against the activity started taking their daughters to training.

It's clear where the credit for all of this must be given. Soccer has been a labor of love for those who have taken the sport in Brazil from nowhere to second best in the world in the course of the last 25 years.

Players and coaches have had to struggle to make a living while at times facing the scorn and prejudice of macho elements in Brazilian society. There must have been many times when the pioneers wondered if it was all worthwhile. It was. They have massively eased the path of the next generation.

And when Brazil does win its first World Cup or Olympic gold in women's soccer -- and it won't be long -- hopefully the Brazilian federation will have the grace to honor all of those who have helped to pave the way.