On 4 January, Brazil’s six-time Ballon d’Or winner Marta logged onto Instagram and posted three pictures of herself alongside her partner and Orlando Pride teammate Toni Deion Pressley, who was sporting a new ring.
Underneath, Marta wrote: “This is another story of the chapter we are writing.” On her Instagram profile, Pressley posted the same pictures, with one word: “Yes.” The happy couple are to be married later this year.
In Marta’s homeland the internet was immediately abuzz with the story, not only on sports sites and social media, but the websites of glossy mags and broadsheet newspapers. In Brazil, the rainha do futebol, or queen of football, is big news.
The announcement goes beyond a nice, upbeat bit of gossip to punctuate the endless flow of horrendous news stories over the last 10 months, even if it was not treated accordingly in a large portion of the Brazilian media reports that followed it.
Owing to her prominence and popularity among even casual football fans, Marta’s actions carry genuine social significance, especially for women and for Brazil’s marginalised LGBTQ+ community.
Julia Santana, a 26-year-old lesbian from the city of Salvador who was recently elected as a council member of EC Bahia, a first division club that has forged a reputation as Brazil’s most open-minded and progressive, tells i: “Marta is a great idol in my life, a great inspiration.”
Marta hails from a small town in Alagoas – the state with the lowest Human Development Index score in the country – in the arid north-east. At 14 she left home alone for Rio de Janeiro, facing a three-day bus ride to pursue her football career.
For Santana, Marta is a shining example of what women like her can achieve. “I always played football and was the only girl among the boys,” she says. “Seeing an athlete with the immense influence she had was always a source of great pride. Because she was north-eastern, because she was a woman and because she was the best in the world for a long while.”
Symbol of female empowerment
For many women across the country, the feeling towards Marta is the same. Gadu, a Bahia player and the Brazilian second division’s top scorer this season, who grew up in the south-eastern state of Sao Paulo, says: “For all of her achievements as a woman, she has become an inspiration and source of motivation for other women and girls.”
Marta is a UN ambassador for women and girls in sport, and Gadu says that, for her, Marta’s social work is just as important as her skill on the pitch: “I believe that for a lot of women who live in the world of football and have her as an inspiration, [Marta’s actions] end up encouraging us to take a position, to fight for what we desire and to change the way society thinks.”
According to Gabi Kivitz, who co-wrote the song “Jogadeira”, which became the anthem of Brazil’s 2019 World Cup campaign: “Marta transcends football. She is a symbol of female empowerment. She was a symbol of this fight before it became a mainstream topic.
“All women who play football here are symbols of this fight, in fact. In Brazil football is a very machista environment. Playing football is an act of resistance for women. Marta’s success has a social impact as she is an inspiration for girls who come from a precarious social situation.”
As an openly gay woman, Marta’s impact is two-fold. Gadu says, owing to pioneers like Marta, being LGBTQ+ in women’s football “is not as scary as it once was, a lot of clubs have embraced the cause. However, we know that prejudice still exists”.
‘Being LGBT in Brazil is an act of courage’
Outside women’s football, that prejudice is as strong as ever. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a self-declared homophobe. “Brazil is the country that kills most LGBT people – that’s without talking about the numbers of people committing suicide from the LGBT community,” Santana says.https://e49384e0b9ed09da5c95100929596142.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“Being LGBT in Brazil is an act of courage. LGBT people like us are not safe on the streets, like Marta is not safe, simply for being LGBT.”
According to the campaign group Grupo Gay da Bahia, 297 people were murdered in attacks motivated by homophobia or transphobia in Brazil in 2019.
Santana says Marta’s marriage will not be a magic wand but it could have some positive impact because “the figure of Marta is strong beyond the four lines, off the football pitch”.
“A homophobe might rethink because of the influence of Marta, but I think the gain from Marta’s wedding is much more through what it represents. An LGBT child can see themselves represented in one of the greatest idols in the history of football, they can take strength from that to continue living.”