Football: 'Pele in a skirt' Marta chases first world crown

SAO PAULO (AFP) - Pele himself dubbed her "Pele in skirts", though as she prepares for the women's World Cup, Brazilian star Marta is, unlike the national icon, still chasing a breakthrough team world crown.

It's the only gap in a sparkling resume built in a sport which has fascinated her since she first saw women's football on television as a 10-year-old.

Now 29, Marta is the face of the women's game in Brazil, despite spending much of her career in the United States and Sweden.

Marta started out playing barefoot at Dois Riachos in Brazil's arid north-east state of Alagoas.

She told her mother she would make the grade and has been as good as her word save for lifting a World Cup - a final defeat in 2007 to Germany the closest she and her compatriots have come to date.

Shoals of titles at club level and Copa America and Pan American titles cannot mask the fact that the World Cup is still missing from her honour roll as Marta links up with her squad mates.

Marta Vieira da Silva has been chasing her dreams all her life, starting off by trying to keep up with her brothers in their games.

Home life in Brazil's tough north-east was difficult - her parents split up before she was a year old and her mother was left to fend for herself and four children.

Money was tight for everything, including school materials, never mind football boots, and Marta only started school at the age of nine.

She played in school leagues until the day when one coach refused to let his team compete unless she withdrew.

At that stage, a local scout brought her to Rio for try-outs with nascent women's outfits.

Aged 14 by that stage, Marta had never left her home state. Her mother only realised the youngster was serious when she saw her board the bus for Rio.

North Pole

She impressed in a trial and signed for the Vasco da Gama youth team. Sissi, considered Marta's predecessor as Brazil's top female starlet, was then in the club's senior side.

Sissi remembers the first time she set eyes on Marta.

"Her technical ability and explosive pace were incomparable. Everyone is born with a gift and this is hers," Sissi told AFP.

By 2003, Marta was in Brazil's Copa America squad and scoring the first of her 91 international goals.

Months later she joined Swedish club Umea, based close to the North Pole and promptly landed the women's Uefa Cup with them.

That year she earned the first of 12 nominations as women's world player of the year, winning five straight crowns from 2006-2010.

Between spells in the United States with Los Angeles Sol and Gold Pride, she sandwiched a loan with the women's squad of Pele's old club Santos in 2009.

Warrior

There, under Kleiton Lima, who also had a spell in charge of the women's national side, she lifted the Libertadores Cup.

"She has a very competitive personality, she's a warrior who always wants to win. Her life is a victory. She came from Alagoas, where there was nothing open to her, and achieved great things with her talent," recalls Lima.

In 2012, Marta returned to Sweden to star for Rosengard.

Her achievements have won her global respect but she takes particular pride in having been a UN global ambassador since 2010.

After Pan-American success in 2007, she had her feet cast in concrete at the Maracana, joining legends such as Pele, Zico and Romario who have left their permanent mark at the stadium.

In 2007, she also played alongside Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane in a charity game.

Marta has regularly called for more recognition for the women's game in Brazil and has at times been outspoken in that demand.

"A hundred years will have to go by before we have another Marta. That's how it has been with Pele," says Lima. "Since his day we have had superb players but not on the level of what Pele meant for football."

Lifting a World Cup in Canada in July would cement the parallel esteem in which Pele and Marta are held.