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Aug 10, 2008

Marta missing only a championship

Until she can lead her team to a big win that really matters, Brazil's Marta has failed to fulfill her promise as a player.

"The female Pele" is how Marta Vieira da Silva has been called. She has the creative moves, the explosive energy and numerous awards and accolades to merit the comparison to her famous countryman. Like Pele, Marta has been immortalized outside Brazil's Maracana stadium in Rio de Janiero. Her footprints adorn the Walk of Fame reserved for only the most revered Brazilians in the sport of soccer. She is the only female so honored.

It's not just Marta's homeland that thinks highly of her. She won the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year for 2006 and 2007. However, the previous honorees (Brigit Prinz, Mia Hamm) and Pele himself lay claim to something important that Marta still lacks -- a world title.

Marta and the Brazilian women's team have tried to rectify that situation and make good on her talent and skill. It's not as if Marta is a George Best, a superlative player for a small country (Northern Ireland) that could never hope to provide their star with the support needed to reach the ultimate goal. Brazil's women contended for World Cup glory and Olympic gold before she burst on the scene.

Though the squad was loaded with innovative attacking players, Marta made a huge impact on arrival. At only 17 years old, she scored three times in the Women's World Cup tournament in 2003. That individual accomplishment failed to translate into a successful run for Brazil. The team crashed out in their first knockout match.

Four years later, Marta led her team to the final of the Women's World Cup, trouncing the vaunted U.S. squad along the way. Nerves seemed to get the better of Marta, though. She missed a penalty kick versus Germany and looked out of sync all during the game.

It's evident that Marta's psyche is fragile in certain respects. The great Mia Hamm was similar. Hamm would regularly struggle against top opposition in big tournaments, no doubt due in part because she would be doubled or even triple-teamed in games. Hamm's teammates, though, often picked up the slack. When opponents try to focus on one main talent, it upsets the equilibrium of the defense, creating spaces that can be exploited for goals.

It's not as if the Brazilian team can't play without Marta. The squad has had to do just that for most of her career, since she signed with Umea IK years ago. The Swedish club refused to release her for the 2006 U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia. Brazil still beat the U.S. contingent during that tournament to earn bronze.

While it can't be argued that Marta is dragging Brazil down in any way, it's almost equally preposterous to suggest that her teammates are the element holding Marta from achieving the ultimate prize.

If anything, Marta is often her own worst enemy. That is becoming clear right now in China. In the opening match of Olympic group play, Brazil had the chance to exact revenge versus Germany, who thwarted them in the 2007 World Cup final. Marta failed to make a decisive impact. At one point she missed an open net with a shot that was wide of the mark.

In the next match, Marta opened her scoring account with a goal versus North Korea. Yet she also flubbed another simple strike to put her team ahead by a more comfortable margin.

These slight mental lapses persist in Marta's game, overshadowing her years of advancing the women's game by earning lavish praise for her dynamic play.

The standard is set high, though, because the comparison to Pele is one that demands it. It's not enough to be a maestro with the ball in matches here and there. To be truly great, Marta must prove she can perform when most needed and consistently enough to propel Brazil all the way to the top of the mountain. Brazil has had the pinnacle in sight more than once, losing in the final of the 2004 Olympics and the 2007 World Cup.

Marta realizes what is at stake. She has said she would willingly exchange her Player of the Year award for Olympic gold. If only it were so easy. Match by match, Marta must lead her team on a pressure-filled quest to fulfill what many have assumed is her destiny. Anything less than the best that she is capable of invites criticism and scrutiny.

A young player like Amy Rodriguez of the U.S. can buzz around up front, threatening without scoring, and be lauded for putting some fear into the defense. Marta is only two years older than Rodriguez, but her considerable World Cup and Olympic experience raises expectations to a different level. A Rodriguez-like performance by Marta would likely be considered a failure. She's past the stage where her potential excites onlookers. It's time for her to deliver.

An intensely private person, Hamm seemed perpetually astonished and slightly puzzled by the fervent attention she received as the face of women's soccer. Marta, in contrast, has embraced that opportunity, eager to have a platform on which to elevate the profile of her team. She has not shied away from the Pele connection, teasingly referring to him as her "cousin" in a documentary.

Brazil has long worshipped its male players but given scant attention to the females, with Marta being the notable exception. She and her teammates cannot hope to gain respect for the women's program by matching the men's haul of five World Cup championships anytime soon. However, one way to capture the attention of the soccer-mad nation would be for Marta and company to claim the Olympic title that has thus far eluded Brazil's men.

One can't be "the best player in the world" merely on paper or on highlight videos. Championships define true champions. Marta has been on the cusp before -- and faltered. A bit older, wiser and perhaps stronger than ever now, she should know her legacy has yet to be defined. A golden opportunity is waiting.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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