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Sep 24, 2007

Brazil leans on Marta for its title hopes

HANGZHOU, China -- Like just about all the great Brazilian soccer stars, Marta Vieira da Silva is known by a single name.

When she swivels, defenders spin to follow her darting feet. She's slight, but her thin legs generate graceful power and audacious fakes. She can sprint and yet linger over the ball, punching it off her heel or instep without breaking stride.

She grew up poor in Brazil and her idols were such one-name wonders as Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Her moves are similar, her goals equally ambitious.

"They were all examples to me, the ones who we all knew," she said after practice, speaking in her native Portuguese. "I was born playing football. I don't know where I learned to play. I've been doing it since I was 7. My inspiration is my family, for all the tough things they have gone through."

Marta and her Brazilian teammates face the United States on Thursday in the semifinals of the Women's World Cup in Hangzhou, one of China's most popular tourist cities.

The Americans, undefeated in 51 games over almost three years, will find a host of other single-name players across the midfield and front line. There's Maycon, Cristiane, Formiga, Daniela and Ester -- all almost as talented as Marta and standing between the No. 1-ranked U.S. and its bid for a third World Cup title.

The final is Sunday in Shanghai and three of the semifinalists -- the U.S., Norway and Germany -- have won the World Cup before. Defending champion Germany plays Norway on Wednesday in Tianjin.

Brazil is a new threat, and No. 10 in yellow and green in a key reason.

"Marta has so much confidence when she is on the ball," said U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx, who played against her in the 2004 Olympic final, which the U.S. won 2-1 in extra time. "Their whole team is very crafty, but she is the one you cannot lose focus on because then she'll take it to you. She may put you to sleep, then all of a sudden she'll be ready."

Sunday's 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Australia was an example.

Though she converted a penalty kick to make it 2-0 -- her fifth goal to share the lead in tournament scoring -- Marta was average by her standards. But after Australia tied it 2-2, it was Marta at midfield who found Daniela down the middle. Cristiane got the final pass and scored on a 20-yard shot to give Brazil the victory in the 75th minute.

"Marta knows how to play like a man. This is probably what makes her different," Brazil teammate Simone said. "I don't think you should really compare her to the men because she's a woman. But she's special."

"She not so good that she can play alone, but we can't play without her," Simone added.

Midfielder Leslie Osborne, who marked striker Kelly Smith in the Americans' 3-0 quarterfinal win over England, is unlikely to draw Marta against Brazil. A faster player may draw the assignment, or a zone might be employed.

"You will have to be on your toes for 90 minutes because she will want that ball," Osborne said. "And she'll want to do something with it every time she has it."

Unlike the American women, who first captured the nation's imagination in winning the '99 World Cup, the women's game hasn't caught on in Brazil. The men have left no space for women's soccer, which is just the opposite in the U.S.

Marta was the 2006 player of the year -- picked by the world governing body -- but few Brazilian reporters are covering the team in China. More attention has come from Swedish TV and foreign and Chinese media. Marta plays for the Swedish club Umea, speaks Swedish and may be better known there than at home.

"It's just crazy those girls don't get more respect at home," Osborne said. "Because they truly are some of the best soccer players in the world."

In 22 games against the United States, Brazil has won only one with two ending in ties. But the U.S. managed only narrow victories in the last three. American coach Greg Ryan knows what he's up against.

Ryan was critical of Brazil's rough tactics in 2-0 loss to the U.S. in June in New York, much of it aimed at chopping down striker Abby Wambach. Marta didn't play in the game.

In the World Cup, Ryan has said Brazil at times has looked "disorganized," which does not lessen the threat.

"The thing that makes them most dangerous is how talented those players are with the ball, their ability to beat players off the dribble, the great finishing," Ryan said.

After practice, Marta and her easy smile is the only player swamped for interviews. Interest about her may be low at home, but not so in China.

"I try not to think about the pressure too much," she said. "Sometimes it's hard. Sometime I would like to just be with the rest of the group. But it's like that when you do something good on the field or anywhere else in life. That's the way it is. I'd say I have a normal Brazil soccer player's life."

And just one name.