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In Brazil, Where Men’s Soccer Once Was King, the Women’s Game Rules

In Brazil, Where Men’s Soccer Once Was King, the Women’s Game Rules

 

MANAUS, Brazil — Late Tuesday evening, as the Amazon temperature danced at 90 degrees with humidity in step, Janine van Wyk, a defender with South Africa’s women’s soccer team, paused just a second to take in the packed and throbbing Amazônia Arena, filled with 43,000 gloriously nuts fans.

She thought to herself, “This is amazing, to realize that all these people are supporting the women’s game,” she told me later. “This lets younger girls everywhere know our sport is growing.”

She flashed a quick smile even though her team had just been knocked out of the Olympic tournament.

The wheels of change are turning in what Brazilians freely describe as their macho society. Their men’s team collapsed in a heap in the World Cup two years ago and continues to play with a listlessness and diffidence in these Olympics. (Manauaras, the locals here, say the male players “are walking on high heels,” which means, roughly and after consultation with eminent linguists, “arrogant snots.”)

The women’s game — the Brazilian women in particular, but with applause left over for foreign teams as well — has captured the collective imagination here. As a colleague, Tania Franco, and I wandered around Manaus before the game, and later as we walked through the stands, the sense was that this nation’s enraptured, besotted relationship with soccer had finally lapped over onto the women’s side.

Much of this is owed to the Brazilian women’s players, who kick and run with an artful joie de vivre, offering ankle-breaking stutter steps and swashbuckling kicks. Marta, the ponytailed star long known as the Pelé of the women’s game, spent too much of her career as a soccer prophet without much honor in her own country. Now she hears loud applause every time her foot touches the ball.

We came upon Danyelle Christine da Silva Beleza, 14, standing and jumping and cheering in this stadium, which was built at fantastical cost and sits like a massive white orb astride northern Manaus. Her family and their neighbors’ family had taken two cars and driven from Rondônia to Manaus for this game. That sounds easy enough; a map shows mileage roughly equivalent to the seven-and-a-half-hour trip from New York City to Cleveland. Except that they traversed a “highway” that had been closed for 30 years and that remained a dirt track through the Amazon jungle. The two families bounced and jostled for 14 hours.

No matter. They wanted to see the women play.

“Brazil is a macho-man society; it is wonderful this is changing,” Danyelle said, beaming. “I want Marta’s jersey instead of Neymar’s.”

Neymar is the star of that other team, the Brazilian men.

As it happened, the Brazilian women could not deliver a grand victory on Tuesday night. The South African women, by their own admission playing over their heads in the drive-a-stake-through-the-eye heat, held the Brazilians to a 0-0 tie.[…]

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