Somewhere in the heart of northeastern Brazil, about nine degrees south of the Equator and a couple of hundred miles inland from where the Brazilian coast bulges out into the Atlantic, two rivers converge.
There, painted in pastel hues, is the clapboard town of Dois Riachos, little more than a dot on the map in the huge cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco producing state of Alagoas. Flash past on Brazil’s route 316, perhaps on the way to Maceio and the sea, and you would hardly notice it.
Dois Riachos. Two little rivers.
Marta Vieira da Silva remembers them well. They were the playgrounds of her childhood. For half the year, when the rains had long gone and the streambed was dry, she and the rest of the kids in Dois Riachos used to play soccer in the sandy river bottoms.
It was there that the scrawny youngster who grew up to become the world’s finest female soccer player learned the tricks that now keep fans worldwide spellbound.
This remote locale, where she dodged the tackles of older boys intent on taking her down, was the ultimate source of her Pan American Games gold medal, her two Olympic silver medals, her three consecutive FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year awards in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The step-over moves, the dribbles, the dragging of the ball this way and that, at speed, with the sole of the boot, the lightning quick turns, the instant acceleration, the unleashed shot with power or the placement with finesse -- all these the woman now known simply as Marta learned on the dry streambed.
And when the rains returned and the rivers filled?
“Then we went to the beach,” Marta said, beaming the smile that has become almost a trademark.
She is at the beach again now, having arrived in Southern California last Thursday night, on her 23rd birthday, to prepare for her new role -- as the brightest and highest-paid star not only for the Los Angeles Sol but in all of Women’s Professional Soccer, which launches its inaugural season on March 29.
And so Marta is in Manhattan Beach, just up the road from her new home in Redondo Beach, chatting amiably over lunch about how different things are going to be, the promise of the new league, and how she has to add English to her fluent Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.
She shows up incognito -- in dark glasses, with a black hat pulled down low, adding to the air of mystery. She could be a musician, and is, in a way. “I love all kinds of music and I love to sing,” she said. “I am starting to learn more English just through music.”
But soccer is her true language.
Her incomparable skills were evident long before she left home to try her luck first with a Brazilian club for two years and then with one of Europe’s leading women’s teams, Umea IK of Sweden, for the last five years.
“They say that my father was a very good soccer player, but I never saw him play,” said Marta, who, along with two older brothers and an older sister, was raised, in humble circumstances, primarily by her mother.
Marta’s soccer knowledge came not only from playing, she said, but by watching Brazil’s never-ending procession of World Cup standouts. She rattled off the names: Rivaldo, Romario, Ronaldo and Kaka. “I tried to watch each of them and observe them and take a little bit from each of them,” she said.
Now her name ranks among them. After she had led Brazil to its Pan American Games gold medal victory over the U.S. in front of 67,788 in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, she became the first female player to leave her footprints in the walk of fame at the stadium.
Even Pele called to congratulate her.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be the best player in the world,” Marta said. “I’ve always played. Even when I was little, it was my favorite activity.”
Unlike another of her favorite players, Ronaldinho, who invariably plays with a smile, Marta is more serious.
“I’m always reading the game. The expression on my face is more of concentration and focus,” she said.
Her fame, meanwhile, is worldwide.
“We flew from Rio de Janeiro to Panama City to L.A.,” said her agent, Fabiano Farah, who is also Ronaldo’s agent. “The whole crew was from Panama, where soccer is not that popular, but they all wanted to see Marta, and two guys asked for a picture.”
Marta takes it in stride.
“I go wherever I like and do the things I like to do,” she said. “I don’t really let it get to me.”