RIO DE JANEIRO — The faces in the locker room were stained with tears. It was quiet at first. The players of the Brazilian women’s national team were processing what had just happened. During these Olympics they had played for stakes much higher than simply winning or losing games. And now a crowd of some 70,000 fans had roared for them in the Maracanã Stadium, the spiritual home of Brazilian soccer.
For more than two hours, that mass of yellow humanity rose and fell with every chance, every gorgeous dribble and pass. It produced a noise that the players had never heard before at one of their games. But now, despite outshooting Sweden 33–6, Brazil was living the agony of falling on penalty kicks after a 0–0 tie. Their gold medal dream was over.
Finally, veteran defender Bruna Benites stood and broke the heartbroken silence in the locker room. “The biggest medal we can win in this Olympics,” she announced to her teammates, “is the respect from our people here [in Brazil]. Even though people call Brazil the capital of world soccer, that doesn’t apply to women’s soccer. Everyone only supports men’s soccer. These Olympics have changed that.”
Listening to Bruna Benites, reserve goalkeeper Aline Reis nodded her head. Aline’s own story was remarkable. As the goalkeepers coach for UCLA’s women’s team and a former standout player at Central Florida, she had watched Brazil on television in last year’s World Cup and decided to try one last attempt at making the national team for the Olympics. And she did it, beating out last year’s World Cup starter, Luciana, for the backup spot in goal.
Aline had even gotten the start for Brazil’s last Olympic group-stage game, before a sell-out crowd of 42,000 in Manaus. She made a series of acrobatic saves to preserve a 0–0 tie against South Africa, and she had come away from these games thinking something big was happening in Brazilian culture.
“The coolest thing is it’s not only the typical soccer fan that’s supporting us,” Aline said after Tuesday’s game. “We have senior citizens, women of all ages watching us and sending us messages, wanting to take pictures with us. So I think that’s the biggest accomplishment we can have, even more important than a gold medal. We want to change the face of women’s soccer in Brazil. And if we can continue to do that through the media and the soccer that we’re playing on the field, that’s our biggest accomplishment.”
When Brazil’s women reached the 2004 Olympic final with emerging stars Marta (just 18 years old) and Cristiane (19), it seemed like Brazil was on the verge of taking over global women’s soccer for years to come. And even though the Brazilians reached the final of the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics, they have still yet to win a major tournament so many years later.
The primary blame can go on the Brazilian soccer federation, the nation’s professional clubs and schools around the country—invariably all male-run entities that have refused to support and invest in women’s soccer the way that has been done in other countries. Brazil doesn’t have a Title IX. It’s as though those men wanted to let the women’s game die on the vine.
But the Brazilian public has fallen in love with this team during the Olympics. Huge crowds have followed the team from Rio to Manaus to Belo Horizonte and back to Rio again.
“In Maracanã it was a great atmosphere,” Aline said. “It’s an honor for us to bring almost 70,000 people to these stands, especially a game on a Tuesday at 1 p.m. That doesn’t happen very often. So for us it was it was a dream come true. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the result that we wanted, but it was special.”
Now, with the Brazilians out of the gold medal race, the question is simple: Will the Brazilian federation devote more resources to women’s soccer? Or with the gold out of reach, will the men who run the federation let it die on the vine again?
That was the question put to Vadão, the Brazil women’s team coach, after the game on Tuesday. “As to continuing the project of taking women’s soccer ahead, I am absolutely sure that this will continue,” he said. “Because that’s the wish of the CBF president. The technical commission might be replaced, but the president’s will is there to provide support. As to the future, of course this result brings frustration, and I can’t measure right now what would be the consequences, but I should say we have been working hard, and the effect of that can actually be seen. The team was strong.”
Will Brazil start producing more Martas? And will Marta herself, the five-time world player of the year, keep playing? Both of those answers remain unclear. Marta is 30 now and would be 33 at the next World Cup. This seemed like her best chance to finally win a major tournament—on home soil, with tremendous crowd support and the World Cup champion U.S. removed from Brazil’s path.
But soccer isn’t always fair. You can dominate a game and outshoot your foe 33–6, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win. The U.S. knows exactly how that feels against Sweden.
Yet no matter what happens on the field, whether the result is just or not, it would be an injustice of the highest order if Brazil fails to support its women’s soccer players moving forward. There were young girls watching Tuesday’s game on television and at the Maracanã who have the possibilities to become even better than Marta someday.
Let’s hope they get the chance.