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World Cup: Marta era ends as Brazil crash out

Matt Pearson Melbourne
August 2, 2023

A drab draw against Jamaica signaled the end of Brazil's World Cup and Marta's career. It was an ending beyond her "worst nightmares," but hers is a story that cannot be defined by a single game.

A visibily upset Marta of Brazil following their nil all draw with Jamaica
End of an era: Marta bids goodbye to Brazil and the World CupImage: Joel Carrett/AAP/IMAGO

Her career was never just about goals. But, in the end, it was the absence of the one Brazil needed that closed the book on Marta's World Cup career.

"It's hard to talk at a time like this. Not even in my worst nightmares was it the World Cup I dreamed of," the 37-year-old said.

After Jamaica's stubborn resistance sent Brazil out at the group stage with a goalless draw in Melbourne, the all-time World Cup record goalscorer also sent a message to those who are already following in her footsteps.

"This is just the beginning," she said after the match. "The Brazilian people are asking for renewal, and there is renewal. The only old one is me, the majority [of the squad] are young girls with enormous talent, it's just the beginning for them. I finish here but they continue."

As seismic as it was, Marta's exit from what she had already confirmed would be her final World Cup does little to impact her legacy, according to Jamaica's Khadija Shaw. The opposing captains shared an emotional embrace at the end, and Shaw told DW that Marta was a huge influence.

"I looked up to Marta as a child growing up," Shaw said, "and I wanted her to know she's not just an inspiration for me but for a lot of people around the world, and to congratulate her for the wonderful career she's had."

Marta fights for the ball with Jamaica's midfielder Drew Spence
Just one last World Cup goal ... but it wouldn't come for Marta or BrazilImage: William West/AFP

Marta: 2 decades at the top

Marta made her World Cup debut back in 2003, when several of her current teammates had only just been born, scoring three times in four games before Brazil lost to Sweden.

It was the start of an incredible personal run in the competition. She was the first person to score at five World Cups, holds the record (male or female) for the most World Cup goals with 17, and has appeared at six editions of the tournament.

But, for a player who has always sought to put her team first, that won't quite be enough without the trophy.

A 2007 final loss to Germany is as close as she, and Brazil, have come. That was sandwiched between defeats in the Olympic finals of 2004 and 2008 and, though she has won plenty at club and continental level, those near misses will inevitably nag at a player who has always strived for nothing less than perfection.

Though the disappointment was clear in her words, there's no doubt Marta changed the game, particularly in Brazil. Football was banned for women in the country for nearly 40 years and was only reintroduced in 1979, seven years before Marta was born.

Now, with the sun setting on her career, her importance is such that employees in the country could opt to take a day's holiday from work to watch World Cup matches (as they can with the men), a women's football day has been instituted in the state of Rio de Janeiro on her birthday and Brazil's women have removed the stars from their shirt to emphasize that their achievements, and not those of the men's side, should define them.

Jamaica's players celebrate qualifying for the next round
Minnows Jamaica fought hard for the goalless draw which saw them qualify for the knockout stageImage: William West/AFP

Visibility improving

"You know what's good? When I started there were no idols in women's football," she said through tears at a press conference ahead of this game. "How could there be if you didn't show women's football? How could I understand that I would reach the national team and become a reference point?

"Twenty years ago, nobody knew who Marta was at my first World Cup. Twenty years later, we have become a reference for many women all over the world, not only in football."

Veterans like Marta, or Canada's Christine Sinclair, have often had to fight constantly for recognition and equality, often against their own federations, morphing them from pure athletes to a hybrid of sports star, union rep and politician.

But the Brazilian has also had to adapt on the pitch, particularly since an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury last year that put this World Cup, and her career, in doubt.

Falling short

The rapid, ruthless goalscorer of Marta's youth is gone, replaced by a smarter player who often operates from deeper and, in this tournament, has often been used from the bench to try and change the course of the game.

With their tournament on the line, Brazil coach Pia Sundhage handed her star a starting berth on Wednesday. But neither she, nor her teammates, could find a way to unpick their opponents. Instead, Marta spent the final minutes of her World Cup career on the bench.

"When we could not break the defense, you get a little bit stressed. And if you get stressed, it was a little bit slow and you lose a little bit of the courage," Sundhage said.

That is a quality Marta has rarely lacked in her career, whether on the pitch or striving for a better future for Brazilian women's football. She, like Sinclair days before, could not, for once, be the one that made the difference.

That last goal just would not come.

Edited by Matt Ford