Football (soccer, to Americans) is the world’s game, a democratic sport that excludes no one—or so the narrative goes. The reality for female footballers is quite different, but in the World Cup’s host country of Brazil, at least one organization, the Guerreiras Project, is taking advantage of interest in the sport to amplify the voices of its most disenfranchised players. Founded in 2010 by ex-professional player Aline Pellegrino (“Pelle”) and two of her teammates, the Guerreiras (“female warriors” in Portuguese) have set out to transform the way the world sees women in football.
In Brazil, women and girls were banned from the game by governmental decree for 38 years, on the bizarre grounds that the sport was incompatible with “female nature.” Though the prohibition was lifted in 1979, not too much has changed in the time since. Now, girls are permitted to participate, but are hardly encouraged, despite being just as dedicated to the sport, if not more so than men—in 2010, the majority of Brazilians watching the World Cup Games were women. The committed few who pursue football face more challenges and far less rewards than their male counterparts.
Take Marta Vieira da Silva. She’s a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, an Olympian, and a recipient of the Golden Boot, which she won as the top scorer in the 2007 Women’s World Cup. And yet, due to the instability of the Brazilian women’s leagues (both teams she played for went out of business), she plays for Sweden, where gender roles are less entrenched and they have a successful, long running women’s league. Her salary—reported to be around $400,000—is extraordinary for a woman, but it’s a deal that would insult her male counterparts. Ronaldinho has been named FIFA Player of the Year only twice, and he’s paid in the tens of millions.
But compared to most of her peers, Marta’s is a success story. For the vast majority of the female football players in Brazil, pursuing a career in the sport is wholly unrealistic. Their matches receive no publicity, and players are forced to use substandard fields and hand-me-down jerseys from men’s leagues. It’s not an easy lifestyle; many women even take second jobs, live together in crowded rooms, spend much of their time on the road, and pool their tiny stipends to buy necessities like shampoo.
Without role models, career prospects, or the financial incentives available to male players, Brazil’s girls are alienated from one of the nation’s most heartfelt passions.
“Football, in Brazil, is above all other things,” Pelle says. After eight years on the women’s national team—seven of them in the captain’s armband—she of all people understands both the sacrifices and the rewards of the game. “The goal of the project [Guerreiras] is to make girls and women unafraid of their voices and their stories, to have self respect and also to demand respect. Many of them have questions about why things are the way they are and have never had the courage to ask why.”
The World Cup offers a unique opportunity for the Guerreiras. “We’re trying to take advantage of this moment when all the cameras will be on Brazil. We want people to see and hear the voices of women in Brazilian football,” says Pelle.
It’s an important step in what promises to be a long process, but the group is ready for the challenge. “Being Brazilian means being at peace with life in spite of the difficulties that may be,” Pelle says. “Being a Brazilian woman means being a guerreira.”