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'Female Pele' Marta seeks fair deal for women's soccer

updated 7:17 AM EDT, Fri August 9, 2013
Marta Vieira da Silva, or Marta as she is simply known, is considered the finest female football star on the planet. The Brazilian has won FIFA's World Player of the Year on five out of the nine times she has been nominated. Marta Vieira da Silva, or Marta as she is simply known, is considered the finest female football star on the planet. The Brazilian has won FIFA's World Player of the Year on five out of the nine times she has been nominated.
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Pele 'with skirts'
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marta is considered to be one of the greatest female football players in history
  • The Brazilian has won the World Player of the Year award on five occasions
  • The 27-year-old began playing soccer as a child against the local boys in her area
  • She is hoping that Brazil will launch a national league for women's teams

(CNN) -- There's no skirting around the issue -- short shorts, long shorts -- it doesn't matter to the biggest name in women's football, Marta.

Who better to talk about the struggles facing the sport than the woman known across the world as "the female Pele?"

In fact, if you ask Pele himself, largely acknowledged to be the greatest player to have ever kicked a football, he will tell you that he calls her "Pele with skirts."

Unlike the suggestion of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who said in 2004 that women soccer players could wear skimpier outfits to make the sport more appealing, Pele's comment was taken as a compliment.

"Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball," Blatter said at the time. "They could, for example, have tighter shorts."

Which clothes players wear are irrelevant according to Marta -- but ensuring that women's football retains a sense of femininity is important to the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year.

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"I'm all in favor of us not losing our essence, our female side, because we are women and we have to be proud of that," the Brazil star told CNN's "An Uneven Playing Field" documentary.

"We have to have some vanity; we have to take care of ourselves and keep our spirits high. I think what really matters is the support you get in football regardless of the uniform you wear.

"Some girls feel good playing in long shorts while some of them feel good playing in tighter shorts. I'm not against it. It's obvious that women have to explore that female side of things and I don't think that's a mistake."

Campaigner

Marta is one of the most vocal campaigners in the battle for equality in women's football.

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Not bad for a girl who grew up in Dois Riachos, playing football on the streets against boys twice her size and without any formative coaching until the age of 14.

Fast forward to 2013, and the 27-year-old is one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, starring for Swedish side Tyresö FF in Stockholm.

Like Marta, women's football has come a long way too since it held its debut at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where nearly 80,000 watched the U.S. win gold. Three years later, over 90,000 people were packed into the Pasadena Rose Bowl, California, for the 1999 World Cup as the U.S. defeated China.

On the club front, the UEFA European Women's Champions League has been gaining in popularity since its inception in 2001.

And yet still Marta believes that attitudes towards women within football have remained stuck in the past.

Prejudice

"I think it has changed a bit but that mentality still exists," she said. "There's still prejudice and that resistance regarding women not only on female football but in various activities.

"Men think that women are a bit fragile to perform some types of activities or don't have the ability and aren't strong enough.

"That doesn't exist anymore. Women have shown they have capabilities in every sense better than men a lot of time, but it's that whole macho thing.

Football in Brazil is seen as a masculine sport even with a lot of people accepting the female sport. It's that whole macho thing
Marta

"Football in Brazil is seen as a masculine sport, even with a lot of people accepting the female sport. There's still a percentage that thinks like in the old days."

While women's football has struggled to gain its share of the limelight in Brazil, the sport is booming across the globe.

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According to the latest figures published by FIFA, the world's governing body, 29 million women and girls play football worldwide.

That's a huge increase from 1971, when three international teams played just two matches -- by 2011 there were 129 teams playing 514 games.

But while the women's game has grown in the U.S. and Europe, progress has been far more difficult to achieve in Brazil.

Even the achievements of the national team, which has won two silver medals and finished as runner-up at the last World Cup, has not been enough to get the professional game off the ground.

Fighting

"When you have competitions like the Olympics or the World Cup, then it captures people's attention and that of the media," said Marta.

"But when that moment has passed and Brazil hasn't played well or won, then you lose that attention.

"Maybe that's what's missing for people who can do something for Brazilian female football, to actually wake up and change the reality of female football because we have three medals.

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"Those three medals till today were useless because our reality hasn't changed that much. There were promises. There was a promise of starting a league, of doing this, of doing that, but in reality nothing was done and we are still fighting.

"We want to try and carry Brazil's name to the top but we don't have the support."

Read: Where has all the women's coverage gone?

Marta was 21 when she played in front of a staggering 70,000 at Rio's famous Maracana Stadium -- an occasion where Brazil defeated the U.S. under-20 team in the final of the 2007 Pan American Games.

But that attendance is an anomaly in a country where the game has little chance of competing for media attention against the constant frenzy surrounding men's football.

Funding is scarce, sponsorship even more so, and while women's football is televised on a regular level in the U.S. in Europe, Brazil is still lagging behind.

Marta, who has played in the U.S. and now in Sweden, has seen first hand the benefits of having sponsors and investment -- and now wants companies to invest in Brazil's women.

Weaker sex

"There's still the prejudice of thinking women are the weaker sex or that they weren't born to play sports," Marta said. "I think people need to stop that and give us credit.

"I know that when people come to invest they want an immediate return, but that doesn't happen.

"There needs to be a schedule. With investment you will have television companies broadcasting the games and you will have more sponsorship.

"If we work on a project to bring more people to the stadium then television companies and sponsors will look at this and think it's a cool initiative.

"That will lead them to get even more involved. It has to be something where every side can be involved but it has to be out of solidarity and not to gain something out of female football, because at this point we can't really give away immediate return."

Hope

We want to try and carry Brazil's name to the top but we don't have the support
Marta

A lack of funding and investment combined with the demise of her former club, Santos, paints a bleak picture for the women's game in Brazil.

But for someone who has broken down barriers from the very time she first touched a football as an inquisitive youngster, there is still hope.

According to Marta, the Brazilian Football Association, the government and FIFA are all working together to establish a women's league which will be made possible through outside investment.

"There is hope for the future," she said.

"I hope they will create a league to give continuity and allow the girls to learn the basics so when they graduate to the national team, they are ready and developed.

"I really hope that happens, if not in my generation then in the ones that follow."

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