Why you should care
Because today’s team owes a lot to yesterday’s women.
Before the penalty shoot-out that decided the semifinal of the Olympic women’s soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro this summer, Brazilians had grown cautiously hopeful that their newfound heroes would pull through. When their side fell to Sweden, 4-3, Brazil’s captain and five-time player of the year Marta Vieira da Silva fell to her knees, weeping. Her teammates and coach put aside their own sorrow to console her, understanding full well that Marta’s tears were about more than one fútbol match.
Brazilians are famously soccer-obsessed, but that addiction applies only to the men’s game. The country largely ignores women’s soccer, whose matches have historically suffered from low attendance and inadequate funding at both the club and national level. During the Olympics, the women’s team grabbed the country’s attention because it looked, at least for a while, like they were more likely to bring home Brazil’s first gold medal than the men. When the ladies lost, attention swiftly shifted back to the men, who caught fire in the knockout stages and ultimately nabbed gold.
It came from a man who, like many others, thought that women’s only obligation was to be a housewife.
For the women’s team, and Marta especially, the loss felt like a missed opportunity to earn Brazil’s respect for good. Though the team did fall short, the attention it garnered was an impossible dream not so long ago. From the moment soccer arrived in Brazil, from Europe, in the mid-1800s, it was an exclusionary game. At first, it was played only by the country’s male white elite. As the men’s game began to diversify at the turn of the 20th century, women also began leaving the stands for the pitch. There is debate over when the first women’s soccer match was played, but historian Fábio Franzini has written about at least 10 women’s teams, including Cassino Realengo and the Eva Futebol Clube, competing in tournaments in Rio de Janeiro as early as 1940.
As the popularity of women’s soccer surged in Brazil, a citizen named José Fuzeira grew concerned and wrote a letter to then-president Getúlio Vargas. Fuzeira contended that women who went into football would compromise both their reproductive organs and sense of femininity, noting that “within a year it is probable that throughout Brazil there will be … 200 centers to destroy the health of 2,200 future mothers, who, moreover, will be caught in a depressive mentality and given to rude and extravagant exhibitions.”
Fuzeira’s words resonated with Vargas, who turned the letter over to the Ministry of Education and Health. That led directly to the drafting of Article 54, a decree levied by the National Sports Council on April 14, 1941, that said females “will not be allowed to practice sports incompatible with the conditions of their nature.” Teams that had grown in the early days of the women’s soccer movement were disbanded, and development of future teams was snuffed out by the country’s regional sports councils. Beyond that point, participating in women’s soccer became a direct challenge to Brazil’s male-dominated culture. Women’s teams would occasionally pop up, two fairly successful examples being the Vila Hilda F.C. and the Corinthians F.C., which operated in Pelotas, in southern Brazil. Luiz Carlos Rigo, a soccer expert and historian, has written that these teams challenged the legislation and functioned until they were banned by the regional sports council.
“It came from a man who, like many others, thought that women’s only obligation was to be a housewife,” says Luciana Castro, a São Paulo–based sportswriter specializing in women’s soccer. Until recently, there has been “big resistance” to women’s soccer, Castro says, noting how much of the pushback “comes from traditional clubs, federations and from women who still see this sport as a kind of masculinization” of those who play.
In 1965, the legislation transcended regimes when the military dictatorship that drove Vargas from power affirmed the ban. During Brazil’s political awakening in the mid-1970s, key figures in the country’s feminist movement joined forces to bring an end to the ban. According to Castro, activist Rose Filardis, known to Brazilians as Rose do Rio, led a successful campaign against the National Sports Council with the help of public figures, including actor Ruth Escobar and Supreme Court lawyer Zulaiê Cobra. Debates about women’s physical education led to the end of the prohibition in 1979. Rose do Rio waged a cultural war against leaders like former FIFA president João Havelange to ensure that women’s soccer would be treated like men’s soccer, Castro explains: “It was through her that the liberation happened.”
In the early days of women’s return to Brazilian pitches, teams grew independently and were often linked to various independent businesses. The National Sports Council, in its own act of resistance, saddled players with rules like shorter game times, full-body protection and not being able to swap jerseys after matches. But the women’s game still thrived, kicking its way onto the international stage in the 1996 Summer Olympics.