labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/dezembro 2015 - juillet/décembre 2015


“Marta is better than Kaká”: the invisible women’s football in Brazil

Carmen Rial




When football came to Brazil from England in the mid 19th century, it did not totally exclude a female presence. Indeed, in the first decades of the 20th century, there are women’s teams playing football in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Under Getúlio Vargas, the women’s football suffered a ban that would last decades. The first Brazilian championship wasn’t held until 1994. To keep them from playing football was symbolically to exclude them from full participation in the nation. The women who enter the universe of football must be capable of attracting male eyes not because of their performance but for specific physical attributes. At that time, the prejudice against lesbian football players was widespread, which led to a “closet culture” at some teams. Brazilian disinterest with women’s football is not an exception.

Key-words: football, women, lesbian


            “No one knows, no one saw,” reads the headline in an important Brazilian newspaper announcing the end of the most important women’s football championship on the continent, the Taça Libertadores da América [Liberators Cup of America]. A photograph of an empty stadium accompanied the article. The team from Santos represented Brazil and won the Cup for the second time with six victories in six matches. On the other extreme, the Universidad de Iquitos of Peru team was eliminated with four losses after giving up 28 more goals than it scored. The statistics reveal the enormous disparity in women’s football in the Americas. Brazil, represented by its national champion, Santos, dominated the other countries, with the exception of Chile, represented in the final by Everton and Argentina, whose best team at the time was Boca Junior. The tournament finished with an average public of 300 people per game, in other words, all of the games were played in empty stadiums.

            As a comparison, the Brazilian D Series championship for male teams (the fourth most important in the country) had an average public of 2,700 paying viewers per game, nearly nine times as many.

The paucity of fans can be interpreted as a lack of interest in women’s football in Brazil, which is new in the country. While in 2009, 15,000 people went to Pacaembú Stadium to watch the final of the woman’s Liberators Cup, this was largely due to the fact that the game was broadcast on TV and Marta was playing for Santos. Despite the fact she has been voted the world’s best woman football player four times, her fame does not compare to that of male stars, although she is a national celebrity and during the final, the fans chanted, “Marta is better than Kaká,” referring to Brazil’s internationally famous male star. Santos was not able to hire Marta in 2010 because of the higher salary she commands in the United States and Sweden.[1] Her U.S. team won the national championship. She was the leading scorer in the U.S. league with 19 goals and was named player of the year. Her career began in Brazil at Vasco da Gama in 2002. The other teams she played for were Santa Cruz in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (2004); Umea IK (2008); the Los Angeles Sol (2009); Santos (2009/2010); FC Gold Pride (2010); Santos (2011); the Western New York Flash (2011); Tyresö FF (2012/2014) and FC Roengärd (2014-), and had 95 caps for the Brazilian National Team, from 2002 to 2014.

Even the presence of Cristiane, who is considered one of the world’s best players by FIFA, was not able to attract attention to the woman’s Copa Libertadores.

The media, through its omission, contributed to this invisibility of women’s football, which it can be said is played at an excellent technical level and has advanced tactically as Santos has demonstrated. If with Marta on the field Santos’ games were broadcast on television - by Rede Bandeirantes de Televisão or by Rede Viva (a religious TV channel with a small audience), without her, the games in the São Paulo league were rarely broadcast. For the South American championship in November 2010, no channel provided images of the Brazilian victory, even though Marta was playing and it was decisive for eligibility in the next World Cup in Germany and the Olympics in England.

The narrative style of the few TV broadcasts there are is another indicator of the great distance between men’s and women’s football. The women’s games are distinguished narratively by a strong didactic tendency among the sportscasters. The players are regularly characterized with formulas such as “Cristiane, who is on the Brazilian national team” or “who was on the team that won the silver medal in the Olympics.” Since the recent history of women’s football needs to be explained, given that it is not well known by viewers, information is provided such as “women’s football became an Olympic Sport in 1996, when Brazil was in fourth place.” “In 2004, the United States defeated Brazil in the final” or “Brazil is a two-time Olympic Champion, having won in 2004 and 2008.” This type of information is missing in the broadcasts of men’s football, because it is understood that the audience knows the basic history. It is difficult to imagine that it is necessary to inform viewers that Maycon, Robinho or Neymar are on the Brazilian national team or that Brazil is a five-time world champion.

In fact, in 2010, the daily newspapers barely covered or gave no coverage to the women’s Liberator’s Cup during the South American championship, preferring to use space for the coverage of male football whose national team was engaged in unimportant friendlies and the national championship among Brazilian teams. This is nothing new. A study we conducted of the leading Brazilian news magazines (Revista Época, Isto É and Veja) and the leading sports magazine, Placar, showed that in the past four years, there were only 11 articles about women’s football, next to nothing considering the avalanche of materials dedicated to the men. This imbalance was highlighted by the comparison with other sports, such as volleyball, basketball or Olympic gymnastics, where there are differences in coverage between genders, but not as sharp as those in football.

Brazilian disinterest with women’s football is not an exception. Sine Agengaard and Nina Tiesler begin their important book Women, Soccer and Transnational Migration with a contrast between the spread of the sport worldwide and its obstacles :

In recent years women’s soccer has enjoyed a boom in participation and it is now undergoing significant growth in participation and organization worldwide (FIFA 2007). The number of registered players has more than doubled since the year 2000 and has surpassed 29 million girls and women playing soccer (ibid). Besides its increasing popularity among participants the game has also experienced a growth in economic support, an expansion of well-organized leagues in several countries and increase in media coverage, advertising and sponsorship. Still, “making a living” as a women’s soccer player is only possible in 23 out of the 136 FIFA-listed countries. (Agengaard and Tiesler 2014: 3)

Why is women’s football in Brazil so invisible? It has a history, yet not one in which women have progressively gained more space, as a naively evolutionist view may imagine.

a bit of history

When football came to Brazil from England in the mid 19th century,[2] it did not totally exclude a female presence - women were initially on the sidelines as “fans.” In fact, the name that designates fans in Brazil, “torcedor,” is not innocent, and indicates a female presence. The etymology of the word comes from the habit of women squeezing white handkerchiefs (to torcer in Portuguese) at the peak of their demonstration of passion for one of the teams. In fact, young senhoritas did watch the Rio de Janeiro club  Fluminense, and probably other teams in southern Brazil, because a female presence was reported in Santa Catarina, at the Sporting parties of the Annita Garibaldi Club, in the early 20th century.  As we can read in a local newspaper:

“Enchanting, we say, and repeat, was the Sunday party held on the grounds of the charming Annita; enchanting because of the grace of the gentle young women and young “sportsmen” with great future from the Lauro Muller group, and also for the toiletes gaies et de bom gôut of the honorable young ladies. The ladies of high society flock to each party at the Club in ever growing number, demonstrating more than the sympathy they have for Annita.” (Club Annita Garibaldi Jornal do Commercio p. 2 apud Almeida 2010:4).

In a sign of those times, Portuguese is substituted by French in the feminine references and English is used for sports vocabulary.  In French or English, the fact is that the throng of women at the games was encouraged as a form of sociability among the genders, creating another location to meet a “good partner,” a white husband from the elite, since at the time blacks, mulattos and other social classes were excluded. The  women were there to make the location more attractive, they were not there to learn to play a new sport.

  And as workers gradually took up space previously reserved to aristocrats on the teams, women also shifted their role from fans to players. There was resistance to each transition, and it was certainly stronger and more persistent to a women’s place in football. In men’s football, the ban had both a class character (professionalism was prohibited, and, as is known, the defense of amateurism was an indirect way to exclude the lower classes) and a racial one (the presence of blacks and mulattos was prohibited on the professional football teams). These interdictions died at the beginning of the century with the gradual inclusion of blacks on the teams and the institution of the so-called “brown amateurism” in which players were paid on the side (Filho 2003).

In women’s football, the transition was in the opposite direction, from liberty to prohibition. Brazil took up women’s football early on, and in this sense, was not different than many countries, where woman’s football was a contemporary of men’s football (Giulianotti 2002). Because there is no historical evidence to prove the contrary, the first official competition is considered to be a game played by women’s teams calling themselves England and Scotland in Edinburg in 1881, under some Football Association rules, which was won by Scotland 3-0.  (Williams 2014: 23).

For the first decades of the 20th century, there are records of women’s teams playing football in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.[3] In his História do Futebol no Brasil, journalist Thomaz Mazzoni (1950) did not recognize this historic data recorded in newspapers of the time, and points to the first game of women’s football as one between women from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro at Pacaembu, represented by the São Paulo F. C. and América F. C. in 1940. Mazzoni (1950) said that “women’s football was launched in this preliminary game, but the interest was limited to this single match. Women’s football had an early death.” (apud Franzini 2005:317). In 1922 women’s sport was organized internationally with the creation in Paris of the International Women’s Sporting Union. The effective official participation of women in sports took place in 1928 in Amsterdam, in the Olympic Games, in a large number of sports including football.

  In any case, all agree with the historian Fábio Franzini, who in the interesting article Futebol é coisa “para macho”?  (Is Football for Machos?) points to the existence of at least 10 women’s teams competing in tournaments in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s. These tournaments included organized teams such as “Cassino Realengo” and the “Eva Futebol Clube.” These events are surprising because they did not have official incentives. In fact, football in the country appears to be closely related to military institutions, which were strictly male. Since the 19th century the military has encouraged the systematic practice of sport (through so-called physical education), since the 19th century, seeing corporal practices as instruments for the construction of a warrior body (Castellani 1988).

The number of women’s football teams increased with time, according to Franzini, and reached about 40 in Rio de Janeiro in the mid 1940s, when Brazil was under the control of dictator Getúlio Vargas. It was then that women’s football suffered a tremendous blow, with a ban that would last decades. Why was women’s football banned in Brazil? Like the ban on the presence of blacks on teams, it reveals an ideology that sought the whitening of the nation (Lesser 1999), stimulated by racist theories that had strong influence in the country since the 18th century. The prohibition of the presence of women on the teams is a corollary to the eugenic ideologies that preached the importance of protecting women’s bodies so that they could create healthy children and thus improve the white race in Brazil. This appears clearly in the letter from a Mr. José Fuzeira, to President Vargas, which helped trigger the law, as reported by Franzini. The letter (which I cite given the enormous and long-lasting repercussion of the movement which it sparked) asks for “the clairvoyant attention of your Honor to avoid a calamity that is about to fall upon female youth in Brazil.” He explained, in a text full of explicitly macho statements:

“I refer, Mr. President, to the enthusiastic movement that is inspiring hundreds of girls, attracting them to become football players, without considering that a woman cannot practice this violent sport without seriously effecting the physiological equilibrium of her organic functions, due to the nature that disposes her to be a mother...The newspapers say that in Rio there are nothing less than ten women’s teams. In São Paulo and Belo Horizonte others are being formed. And, with this growth, within a year it is probable that throughout Brazil there will be 200 organized women’s football clubs, or that is: 200 centers to destroy the health of 2,200 future mothers, who, moreover, will be caught in a depressive mentality and given to rude and extravagant exhibitions; because as they have reached the unspeakable folly of organizing football contests like groups of blind people running dizzily behind a belted ball of rattles, it would not be surprising that the feminine movement to which we are referring is a beginning for, over time, the children of Eve will also present themselves in wrestling matches and even in the “noble art” whose nobility consists in two opponents hitting each other until they drool blood”. Letter of José Fuzeira ao Ilmo. Sr. Presidente da República, Dr. Getulio Vargas (highlights in the original). Rio de Janeiro, 25.04.1940. Arquivo Gustavo Capanema — CPDOC/Fundação Getúlio Vargas (RJ): GC 36.04.22/g — Filme 42 — mf. 0117.

Women’s football was therefore banned to protect their reproductive function as the letter warns, and many analysts have emphasized, but there was more involved. The author of the letter was concerned with a possible change of the entire behavior of women: they could wind up with a “depressive mentality” (we can read “contemplative” since “depression,” as we know it today, was not a disease until the 1940s). At the same time, in an explicit contradiction, they may become “given to exhibitionism,” which is to say, be able to express, or display themselves. And more seriously, the writer warns that their behavioral exhibitions can be “rude” and here we have an adjective that is seen as being positive in male behavior but as negative in that of women. This is an unjustified distinction between the sexes because, as so many others, it simply replicates a binary notion of anatomic difference in the socially prescribed performance of gender.

Even if the expressions of the startling situation may not appear to be absolutely contrary – “depressive” and the same time “exhibitionist”- the diagnosis condemns in a single blow everything that is not considered proper for a women in a patriarchal society, in which they should maintain a passive, maidenly, courteous, attitude, expressing themselves only when ordered to do so by a man, whether a father or husband. They should never be “rude,” that is, aggressive, direct or forceful.

In addition to providing a statistical framework for the presence of women’s football at the time and an estimate of its expansion (“200 centers for aggravating the health of 2,200 future mothers”), the letter judiciously relates the practice of football to possible changes in gender relations. It also correctly designates the origin of the presence of women in football as a “feminine movement” (may we call it feminist?), and because it forecasts the expansion of this presence in other sports, including boxing, a male sport  par excellence. It also correctly forecast the access of other minorities to the sport, such as people with visual deficiencies. A very clear example of male chauvinism, the letter is a unique document because it also represents the vision of the psychological and hygienist movements of the time.

            This is why dictator Vargas gave heed to the clamor in favor of maintaining male domination over women’s bodies, for its limitation to solely maternal functions, and forwarded the letter to the Minister of Education and Health, who, in turn, corroborated with the writer’s thesis, raising scientific and medical arguments that supported the drafting of a decree by the National Sports Council. The decree of April 14, 1941 which established the general foundation for the organization of sports in Brazil, through the creation of the National Confederation of Sports and Regional Sports Councils, and established in its article 54:

 “Women will not be allowed to practice sports incompatible with the conditions of their nature, and for this reason, the National Sports Council should issue the necessary instructions to sports entities in the country.” *

Medical reports with recommendations that emphasized the perspective and analytical category of the letter, supported this decree that excluded women from football. It sought to protect the procreative capacities of women, who would supposedly be placed at risk by the practice of sports. This is a highly refutable biological argument, because of the simple fact that a women’s reproductive organs are internal, unlike those of men, which are outside the body, and who objectively, would be at greater risk when playing football.

The ban of women from some sports was not related to their popularity. In some European countries, twenty years earlier, football – which attracted large audiences – was also prohibited to women. For instance, the British Football Association passed the following resolution in 1921:

“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged. Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of the matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.

For these reasons the Council requests the Clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches. (Williamson1991). The ban lasted 50 years but did not prevent games or tours by the Dick, Kerrs’ Ladies F.C., like the one to the United States and Canada – which had similar bans.

The ban was not uniform across national associations but affected the worldwide labor market for women’s soccer until after World War Two. The German Football Association (Deutscher Fußball-Bund or DFB) regularly discouraged women from playing and banned men’s teams from forming related women’s squads. (Williams 2014: 25)

Although football in Brazil was linked since its earliest days to FIFA, the international governing body did not play a role in establishing the ban. Indeed, by the 1940s, FIFA took a neutral position towards women’s  football. “Two big changes after 1945 altered the phase of proto professionalism to one of emergent professionalism. One was the changing attitude of governing bodies. In 1951 T. Cranshaw of the Nicaraguan Football Association wrote to the secretary of FIFA, concerned that he had seen women’s soccer in Costa Rica and knew of almost 20,000 women players in the United States (Eisenberg et al. 2004: 187). FIFA responded that it had no control over women’s soccer. In consequence, it could not rule or guide on this issue as yet. The second big change was that women’s interest in soccer attracted the interest of businessmen. ” (Williamson 1991:25).

In other countries, women’s football also lagged behind other sports. Many professional women athletes were active in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and pioneered new spectacles for paying audiences; most notably in pedestrianism and swimming (Williams 2014:24)

Behind this supposed protection, we find the mise-en-jeux of the frontiers of a social place for women, that of the mother, conforming to an ideal corporal model: a plump body, without muscles, with rounded forms and limited mobility. That is, a model that corresponds to hegemonic notions of a feminine body and socially prescribed feminine performances: that of being passive and submissive, without agency.

Prohibited since the 1940’s, women’s football continued to exist through sporadic transgressions to the order of male domination. We can see a case of these more closely. In the article Notas a cerca do futebol feminino pelotense em 1950: um estudo genealógico [Notes on Women’s Football in Pelotas in 1950: a genealogical study], by Luiz Carlos Rigo, which reported that in 1950 the city of Pelotas in southern Brazil was the stage for the pioneering organization of two women’s football teams, the Vila Hilda F.C. and the Corinthians F.C. which challenged the legislation, and functioned until banned by the Regional Sports Council. Before them, the practice of women’s football in the city was limited to a few sporadic exhibitions, which had more of an exotic and farcical than a sporting nature. “We found one example of these exhibitions in the Circo Queirolo, which included an unusual presentation in its spectacle: ‘two women’s football teams entered the ring,’ improvising a game that entertained the crowd. (Jornal Opinião Pública January 14, 1930 apud Rigo 2008).

The leading feminine sport at the time was swimming – where the corporal movements were softened by the water – and practiced in middle class clubs in the city of Pelotas. The two football teams were founded practically together. Most of the players were young, from 13-18, and from the lower middle class, and lived in the neighborhoods where the clubs were located. Some of the athletes stood out, such as the striker Gelsi, described in a local newspaper as an: “element of great quality. She controls the ball with precision, with the opportunity to translate her qualities as the playmaker of the Sunday match, which ended with the victory of the first team by 5- 2 (Rigo et alli 2008). In this brief description of Gelsi’s qualities, note the seriousness with which women’s football is treated. This is because it highlights her corporal abilities as a player in her sporting performance (“precise ball control”, “playmaker” which can also be understood as goal-scorer), and because the report covers a simple practice session in preparation for a game. Nevertheless, the respect in the treatment observed in this brief newspaper article, was not enough to change the position of sporting authorities and unfortunately, Vila Hilda F.C. and Corinthians F.C. had short lives. In Great Britain, the most famous team, Dick, Kerr Ladies, which “had begun to play seriously in October 1917” and attracted more public than the men’s game’s played on  the same days (Williams 2014: 23) was composed of workers from a tramway equipment factory. In Brazil, to the contrary, the women’s teams were not work-related, as were many male clubs (Filho 2003; Leite Lopes 1994). In fact, the entry of subaltern class men into this elite sport began on the fields near the factories of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

There were other cases similar to those in Pelotas, of women’s football before the legal liberation, although historians indicate they were few in number, and when they gained notoriety, were systematically stopped by the Regional Sports Councils. “Surrounded by prejudice, the sport did not take hold among women,” (Mazzoni 1950:289). What is surprising in the obedience to the order given is precisely the rarity of the transgressions.

Despite being highly anachronistic, the 1941 law remained in force until the late 1970s, keeping women off football fields. This exclusion would be better detailed with Deliberation n.7 of 1965, in which the military dictatorship, which had recently seized power, specified sports prohibited to women including fights, jumps and football that were prohibited to women, and regulated the intensity and finality of their participation in other sports. “Rowing, for example, could be practiced as long as it wasn’t competitive and sought to correct organic defects, various track and field sports could be practiced as long as they demanded less effort than the males”(Goellner 2005:93)

That is, in the 1970s, a time of great transformation in gender relations in the Western world, with a decline in male domination and expansion of the realm of opportunities for women, Brazil reinforced the exclusion of women from the sport that occupied a central place in the Brazilian imagination. Thus, to keep them from playing football was symbolically to exclude them from full participation in the nation, because football, more than any other social practice, would serve to construct the sense of nationhood. It was one of the tools of nationalism and of sociopolitical modernization in the country. Women thus suffered a dual exclusion, because, like men, they could not vote (because of the dictatorship), and they could also not participate in this language shared by men, which was football, and which shaped them imaginarily as Brazilians.

Women’s bodies were labeled as inferior to those of men, incapable of the same feats, while sanctified under the ideological mantle of maternity. But to ban them from football was more than to prohibit corporal movement and affirm their condition as dominated. Banning women from football, which articulated gender, nation, and imagination, excluded them from a greater collective and a broad spectrum of social practices. Incapable of symbolically representing the nation in competitions in which this sentiment was enacted, they were not only passive and submissive, but also second class citizens.

There are various possible interpretations for this exclusion. The alibi used of a supposed need to protect the female body is usually emphasized. The recognition of a danger can be seen in this interdiction, of an element that could transform passive beings into social subjects, with agency, as indicated by the letter that sparked the decree that prohibited women from playing football. But it can also be interpreted as a way to silence women in one of the most important spaces of affirmation of the nation. And, moreover, in this interdiction can be seen the fear of a possible revelation. At least if we consider the thesis presented by Appadurai in a similar case of rejection of women from another sport, cricket in India:

[...]women have become both players and aficionadas of cricket. Yet, for the nation at large, cricket is male-dominated activity in terms of players, managers, commentators, aficionados, and live audiences.(...). The Indian female gaze, at least thus far, is twice removed, as they are most often watching males play, but also watching males watching other males play.  (Appadurai 2001:111).

The homoerotic component in the experience of watching football is revealed by the exterior eye of the Other, in this case, of women. The exclusion of women guarantees that men can look lovingly at other men, without this passion placing their masculinity at risk.

The prohibition of women in Brazilian football waited until the country’s political opening to be revoked and was stimulated by heated debates in the field of physical education, which were permeable to the feminist movement in Brazil sparked by the return from abroad, and especially from France, of women of the left. It was not by chance that the year of the end of the interdiction, 1979, is also the year when an Amnesty Law was passed, which allowed the return to the country of women who fought the dictatorship and went into exile. Thus, the feminism that began during the 1970s among various groups linked to the struggle against the dictatorship in Brazil, and that initially had a Marxist bent more closely concerned with class oppression, came at the end of the decade, with the return of many Brazilian feminists who were in exile, and raised questions related to the body and to sexual and reproductive rights. (Grossi 1996). It is at the heart of this debate that feminists linked to the field of physical education had this great victory that was the end of the prohibition of women’s participation in football (and in other sports) in Brazil, with the promulgation of deliberation n.10 of 1979 by the National Sports Council.

Marta and the exception that is the rule

Beginning in the 1980s, various women’s football teams sprung up around the country (Franzini 2005:325) and were linked to football departments in the traditional clubs, but also to independent businesses. In Florianópolis, the first clubs were the Paula Ramos Esporte Clube and that of ELASE. A state championship has been disputed in SC since 2007(Almeida 2010:6). The connection between business and women’s football was not unique to Brazil. In many countries the cosmetics industry and other women-oriented businesses saw in the football players a image that corresponded to the changes in gender images underway, leaving women with a more active profile, as a consequence of feminist movements.  As Williams remarked:

 “Interest by business and commercial sponsors pre-dated the creation of an official FIFA Women’s World Cup by over 20 years. It also forced the governing bodies to become involved in regulating women’s soccer, albeit slowly”. (2014:26).

  In Brazil, a specific type of business initially invested in women’s football. It was not mainstream corporations or stores, but gay and especially lesbian bars and nightclubs.  Since the late 1970’s women’s football games were organized by the homosexual entertainment business, which sponsored, for instance, the most important women’s team in Brazil, Radar, which was active in Rio de Janeiro.” (Veja magazine (1996:72-73, Almeida 2010). The re-initiation of women’s football was led by the Radar team in Rio de Janeiro, which had the leading athletes and toured throughout Latin America and the United States. While Radar enjoyed a series of victories in international competitions, it was only with the Olympic Games of 1996 that we can speak of a significant return of Brazilian women to the football fields.

Five years later than England (where the ban ended in 1970), Brazilian women football players earned their freedom, but not totally, because the National Sports Council maintained ridiculous rules for bodily defense such as protection for breasts and a shorter game time:

 According to the Council, the game should last 70 minutes with 35 minutes for each half and a 15 minute interval, in friendlies 5 substitutions can be made and in official games 3 substitutions. The players were required to use breast protectors, shoes could not have pointed spikes and the ball could not be caught on the chest, which would be considered equal to a hand ball. (

  Despite these restrictions, which affirmed the fragility of the female body and limited the practice, women’s football began to organize local and regional competitions, but the first Brazilian championship wasn’t held until 1994.

In 2001, the Paulista Football Federation (FPF) held a tournament which aimed to disseminate and promote women's football. Among the players who decided to participate was Aline Viana, who later wrote a master’s thesis on football, gender and education (Viana, 2012). She justified her decision to participate in the draft, along with other girls, so that she could start a career and earn a living playing football. The event was broadcast in the media, and the league was widely publicized by the FPF in a very special way. Female bodies were displayed, mostly sexy, white heterosexual models, to try to change (or should we say to cleanse?) the image of women’s football. The official tournament folder presented four pictures of a well-known white actress with long blond hair, in a tight uniform that displayed her long legs posing with a ball and hugging (sic!) a man, also white, of course.  The real purpose of the event, according to the brochure, was not to promote the quality of women's football. Instead, it sought to show that women who played football were beautiful, feminine and, very importantly, heterosexual.

Thus, the women who enter the universe of football must be capable of attracting male eyes not because of their athletic performance but for their quite specific physical attributes. They should be “feminine” and to be so, according to Sao Paulo Football Federation (FPF) document DE 2001, means responding to a well determined standard of beauty that seeks to avoid anything that appears to be masculine: they should use long pony-tails and avoid short hair, tight shorts and not boxers, and make-up instead of a “clean” face. This was a project, prepared in conjunction with Pelé Sports & Marketing. Another document from the FPF emphasized the importance of “undertaking actions to consult players about image, personal style and dealing with the media.” Without any embarrassment, the São Paulo Football Federation indicated that beauty is a fundamental requirement for selecting the girls who would play in the competition. The beautification of the athletes is among the “principal objectives” for the “success of the tournament” (Ferrão 2010) who, according to Federation President Eduardo Farah, should “display a new image for women’s football, which is repressed because of macho attitude. We have to try to combine the image of football and femininity.” Another director of the SPFF, Renato Duprat, was even more categorical: “No one plays here with short hair, It’s in the regulations” (Arruda 2001). Thus, obeying this discriminatory and chauvinist rule, a star on the Brazilian team, Sissi, who at the time was playing in the United States, could not play in the São Paulo championship because she had short hair.

At that time, the prejudice against lesbian football players was widespread, which led to a “closet culture” at some teams. Viana tells us:

From 1998 to 2002, during the period when I was a player, different sexual and gender identities existed in the team. I believe that some players did not reveal their wishes, afraid to suffer repression of teammates, family, the coach and the audience watching us. Some of them corresponded to the pattern of femininity desired by society. But some even sought to do   a self "re-feminization" to conform to the social expectations and the group or even to be able to participate in championships in which femininity and beauty could be a selection criteria. Though existing, gender diversity and the sexuality were hidden and silenced on that team. (Viana, 2012: 23-33).

In fact, the “re-feminization” of women is a common trait in Brazil and in some social groups - “corresponding to the pattern of femininity desired by society” - has led to more drastic practices: the country is one of the leaders in plastic surgery, just behind the United States. According to the International Survey on Aesthetic/Cosmetic Procedures promoted by The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), in Brazil in 2014 there were 1,343,293 plastic surgeries and in the United States 1,483,020. Brazil led in face and head procedures with 501,053 (11.9% of the global total); while there were 438,669 face and head procedures in the United States (10.4% of worldwide total). Brazil also led in surgery to the rest of the body (16.9% of the worldwide total), and was behind the U.S. only in breast procedures. (In the United States, 627,165 women had breast procedures, 21.2% of global total, compared to  422,789  in Brazil, 14.3% of the worldwide total. Women patients were responsible for 8,245,769 procedures (85.5%) compared to 1,399,626 (14.5%) for men (

Contrary to Viana’s experience, the ethnographic study by Mariana Pisani (2012) showed that the sexual orientation of the players at a women’s football club in 2013 in southern Brazil was open and out of the closet. This by no means indicates that prejudice is overcome in Brazil. Although gender relations have transformed in recent decades, women who play football suffer prejudice in a still macho society - in 2014, six women register a complaint of gender violence every hour in Brazil. In 2014, out of 52,957 complaints of violence against women, 27,369 corresponded to complaints of physical violence (51.68%), 16,846 of psychological violence (31.81%), 5,126 of moral violence (9.68%), 1,028 of patrimonial violence (1.94%), 1,517 of sexual violence (2.86%), 931 of false imprisonment (1.76%) and 140 involving trafficking (0.26%). Consulted at, at September 8, 2015.

While much has changed, the famous line of the former coach of the Brazilian men’s team, João Saldanha, still represents the attitude of most Brazilian men: “Can you imagine your son coming home with his girlfriend saying: “she’s the defender for Bangú’?  No way, huh.” Although he was a journalist, a leftist intellectual and strong opponent of the military dictatorship, Saldanha reveals the macho attitude found among many men (and many women) when it comes to women’s football. The Bangú Athetic Club was founded in 1904 for the practice of football by workers at the Bangú company factory in Rio de Janeiro. This discourse recalls the analysis of Martine Segalen about the place of sport:  “the stadium and arena embody a warrior and sacrificial symbolism reinforced by countless interjections that originated in the domain of virile sexuality” (Segalen, 2002:7). Or the remark by Goellner:

The representation that football masculinizes women can only be understood from an essentialist representation of genres that does not allow viewing the multiplicities that each pole contains. It also involves admitting that football is a male sport and that when played by women, they should be kept from going beyond some culturally constructed boundaries and be identified by their biological configuration, thus making their feminization imperative. (Goellner, 2006).

Thus, although permitted, women’s football continues to be limited by a macho perspective of gender, which only accepts the presence of women on the field by controlling their bodies: it is not mothers that they want, but sensual models. Thus the classic classification of women in Brazil’s patriarchal society as either wives or whores is reaffirmed on the football field.

Those who may think that this view is something from the past or limited to Brazil have never seen the websites of the most important sports media in the world. Just a quick visit to the Brazilian Globo, or the Spanish Marca or As sites is needed to find that women rarely appear as athletes, but as  “misses”, “muses,” and “fiancées,” usually skimpily clad and in erotic poses. Santos F.C., one of the few big clubs that gave early importance to women, also eroticized them by the team nickname, which is “sereias,” or mermaids. The club has minor league teams and schools that train 800 girls from 9 years of age. Among other teams who invest in sport for girls are Juventus, in São Paulo, Atlético Mineiro, in Minas Gerais, and Sport, in Pernambuco.

In this situation, the chant “Marta is better than Kaká” truly seems to be an exception. To reach the status of male football players, the Martas of Brazil need to overcome much tougher obstacles than the Kakás.



Agergaard, Sine and Nina Clara Tiesler (ed). 2014. Women, Soccer and Transnational Migration. London: Routledge.

Appadurai, A. 1996. “Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization ». Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Almeida, Caroline Soares de 2010.Futebol Feminino. Um estudo acerca de ser jogadora de futebol em Florianópolis. Projeto de Pesquisa, PPGAS/UFSC.

Arruda, Eduardo. 2001. FPF institui jogadora-objeto no Paulista em

Assumpção, J. C. “Homens podem ter disputado o 1º jogo feminino”. Folha de S. Paulo, 25.05.2003, p.D5

Duke, V. & Croley, L. Football, Nationality and The State. Essex and New York: Longman, 1996

Giulianotti, R. 2002. Sociologia do futebol: dimensões históricas e socioculturais do esporte das multidões. S.Paulo: Nova Alexandria.

Goellner, Silvana. Mulher e esporte no Brasil: entre incentivos e interdições elas fazem história.Pwensar a prática. Goiânia. V.8 n.1,pp85-100, jan/jun 2005.

___ 2006. Na “Pátria das chuteiras” as mulheres não têm vez. In: Anais do Seminário Internacional Fazendo Gênero 7: gênero e preconceitos.Florianópolis:Editora Mulheres,2006, p.1-7. Accessible at, consulted at September 7, 2015.

Grossi, M. P. . 1996. Feminismes et Generations Politiques des Années 90 au Brésil. Cahiers du Cedref (Politique et Recherchees Feministes), Paris, v. 6, p. 169-190. 

Filho, Mario 2003. O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro. RJ: Mauad.

Ferrão, Márcio 2010. As duas paixões do povo. Revista Blow-up n.3.

Folha de São Paulo. 1997. 60% dos brasileiros estão parados. (nov. 27).

Frutuoso, Suzane G. A bola está com elas O futebol feminino começa a ganhar espaço com salários melhores e campeonatos importantes, como a Libertadores. Época n. 2082 de 07.Out.2009.

Franzini, Fábio 2005 Futebol é “coisa para macho”? Pequeno esboço para uma história das mulheres no país do futebol. Revista Brasileira de História. São Paulo, v. 25, nº 50, p. 315-328.

Leite Lopes, José Sergio 1994. “A vitória do futebol que incorporou a Pelada”. Revista da Usp, São Paulo, v. 22: 64-83.

Lesser, J. (1999). Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil, Durham, USA: Duke University Press.

Mazzoni, Th. História do Futebol no Brasil. São Paulo: Leia, 1950.

Murray, B. 2000. Uma História do Futebol. São Paulo: Hedra.

Pisani, Mariana. 2012. Foz Cataratas Futebol Clube: trajetórias, migrações e profissionalização de mulheres que praticam futebol. Dissertação de Mestrado. Florianópolis: PPGAS/UFSC.

Revista Veja. Flores do Campo. 1996.

Rial, C. 2014. New frontiers: The transnational circulation of Brazil’s
women soccer players. Sine Agergaard and Nina Clara Tiesler (ed) Women, Soccer and Transnational Migration. London: Routledge, pp 87-102.

Rigo, Luiz Carlos et.alli. Notas acerca do futebol feminino pelotense em 1950: um estudo genealógico.Revista Brasileira de Ciências do Esporte. Campinas, v.29,n.3, PP 173-188, maio 2008.

Rigo, L. et alli. . 2008.Notas a cerca do futebol feminino pelotense em 1950: um estudo genealógico. In: Revista Brasileira de Ciências do Esporte. Campinas, v.29.n.3. PP.173-188.

Segalen, Martine 2002. Ritos e rituais contemporâneos. RJ: Ed. FGV.

Viana, Aline Edwiges dos Santos. 2012. As relações de gênero em uma escola de futebol: quando o jogo é possível? Dissertação de mestrado, UNICAMP: Programa de Pós-Graduação em Educação Física

Williams, Jean 2014. ‘Soccer matters very much, every day’: Player migration and motivation in professional women’s soccer . (Sine Agergaard and Nina Clara Tiesler ed) Women, Soccer and Transnational Migration. London: Routledge.pp.20-32.

Williamson, David J. 1991. Belles of the Ball. Devon: R&D Associates.

Witter, J.S. 1990. O que é o futebol. S.Paulo: Brasiliense.

____1996. Breve História do Futebol Brasileiro. São Paulo: FTD, 1996.

Carmen Rial is a professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, is a researcher of the CNPq (National Council of Scientific and Technological Development), directs the Center for Visual Anthropology (NAVI), and is a member of the Institute of Gender Studies. She received her doctorate from University of Paris V – Sorbonne. Rial is the co-editor of VIBRANT (Journal of the Brazilian Anthropological Association), a former President of the Brazilian Anthropological Association (2013-2015) and is member of the Organizer Committee of the World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA). Her work focuses on cultural globalization, transnational migration, media, gender, consumption and sport. 




[1] While playing at Sol in Los Angeles (2009), she was named the Most Valuable Player in Professional Women’s Soccer, and earned US$400,000 - US$500,000 a year (including marketing incentives from Puma and the Amway Corp. See: Consulted on September 5, 2015. In comparison , Kaká’s annual salary on Real Madrid was 9 million euros.

[2] The origin myth of football’s arrival in Brazil attributes it to the return of wealthy young men to the country after studying in Europe with balls, uniforms and rules for the Breton sport. Charles Miller, a São Paulo resident and son of English aristocrats returned to Brazil in 1894 after 11 years in Southampton. Oscar Cox, from Rio de Janeiro, returned from Switzerland in 1897, and five years later created the Fluminense Foot-ball in what was then the national capital. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that football came to Brazil by other means: through sailors who played in port cities a decade before Miller (WITTER 1990:48) accompanied by local stevedores. Or by immigrants who came to the country in the late 19th and early 20th century, at a time when football was very popular in Europe (CAPRARO 2003). From 1820 to 1920, nearly 120 thousand German immigrants arrived in Brazil and settled in Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul States, and probably spread the sport there.

[3] There is a bit of a polemic about the first women’s football game in Brazil. Researcher Erico Lessa, in a study that he conducted of the leading newspapers of São Paulo, highlighted various games: “the first was in 1913, at a benefit event, in Indianápolis (SP); and the second was in 1921, involving “senhoritas of the Tremembé and Cantareira” neighborhoods in the northern zone of the city of São Paulo; and finally, referred to tournaments in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1940, involving mostly women from the suburbs of the city. Historian José Sebastião Witter, in his Breve História do Futebol Brasileiro (1990) refers to the game between Tremembé and Cantareira as the first. It is important to note that the game indicated by Witter as the first, is involved in another polemic: a recent article in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper presents various versions of the episode. According to the report, some periodicals of the time affirm that the players were men dressed as women, while others says that the match was between a team of men and another of women; in addition, the article said that historians differ about the date of the game (whether it was in 1921 or 1913), as well as its unprecedented nature (because there had been other games between women’s teams before 1913). Assumpção (2003); Duke, V. & Crolley (1996: 132-4). Murray (2000: 71-2), Franzini (2005:12).

* (


labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/dezembro 2015 - juillet/décembre 2015