Ask most women’s soccer players around the world who the best of all time is, and you’ll probably get a range of American answers: Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, or others.
Ask who the best non-American of all time is, though, and the answer is likely to be unanimous: Marta.
The Brazilian playmaker is everything you’d expect of an attacking wizard from one of soccer’s sacred nations. And like all Brazilian stars, Marta Vieira da Silva goes by just one name. She has entertained fans around the world with her skill, flair, creativity and scoring.
This week, Philadelphia soccer fans will get a rare chance to see her play in person, as she leads Brazil against England in the first game of Wednesday's SheBelieves Cup doubleheader at Talen Energy Stadium (4 p.m., live video at ussoccer.com).
Marta has long had a special relationship with women’s soccer fans in the United States. In addition to playing against the U.S. many times, she has played for four American clubs across two leagues. One of them is her current home, the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. Fans there and nationwide hold her in as high regard as they do American stars.
“It’s always special to play here in the United States, whether with the Orlando Pride or with the national team ... It’s always a great spectacle,” Marta told the Inquirer, with help from an interpreter, after Brazil’s practice in Chester on Tuesday. “Against the U.S., their fans will cheer more for their national team, but it is always great playing before a crowd regardless if they are for or against you."
There will be no such problem in Chester. And there will be special significance, because this could be Marta’s last time here. She’s 33 now, and this summer’s World Cup could be her swan song.
Marta caused a stir a few days ago when she posted on Instagram that “this year, I will dedicate myself to my family.” She isn’t retiring yet, but so many fans worried about it that she posted a follow-up a few days later that literally said: “Calm down, people!”
But speculation about her future was out there long before this week, and she knows it.
“You never know ... I want to make the most of this moment without thinking too much about the future,” Marta said. “I want to concentrate on what I have right now, and this opportunity that I have yet again. I want to complete my story in soccer.”
Ideally, that story would include winning a World Cup, which Brazil’s women’s team has never done. This year, the odds are slim. The rest of the world has improved, and Brazil’s group features star-studded Australia. Their matchup on on June 13 in Montpellier is one of the tournament’s most anticipated games.
"This is what we live for," Marta said, "It's another World Cup year, and we're super-motivated."
No matter what happens on the field, Marta will always be known as a champion off it. She has blazed a trail for gender equality in Brazil, where patriarchy is as much a part of the national culture as soccer.
“She means everything for me, and I’m sure not only for me but for all the players,” said Brazil midfielder Debinha, who plays for the NWSL champion North Carolina Courage. “I’m very grateful to get a chance to play with her, and she’s great on the field and off the field. ... I always want to get her experience and hear what she has to say, because it helps us a lot.”