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Brazilian Women Look To Change Soccer Narrative With Olympic Success


In Brazil it was illegal for women to play professional soccer until 1979. Perhaps that's why women's football, as it's known in Brazil, has never really caught on. That may have changed with these Olympics, as NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports from Rio.


LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the famous Maracana Stadium, and there are thousands and thousands of Brazilians here wearing their yellow and green jerseys. Now, this isn't an unusual sight. This is football's Mecca, but there is something different about today.

JOAO PAULO GONCALVES: It's good to see that people are seeing that women can also be good football players, and it's amazing how we're valuing this right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Joao Paulo Goncalves, and he's here to see Brazil's women's team in the semifinal.

You know, it's amazing. It's - we're here. It's absolutely packed. People are waiting in line. There's such a feeling of support and pride.

GONCALVES: Society is evolving, and I think they deserve this. They work as hard as men, so why shouldn't we cheer for them and be here for them? And Brazilians love football, so why not love women's football, too?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why not, indeed. But it hasn't been the case. There's still a strong stigma attached to playing the sport here. Young soccer-playing girls are often harassed.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But yesterday, the Maracana was packed full of almost 70,000 fans to watch the women's team play. Rosalia Araujo and her husband, Jose Antonio, were among the crowd. This was the first time they'd ever seen a woman's match live.

ROSALIA ARAUJO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I came to support our women's team," she says, "because they're doing beautifully. I think things are changing. We never had the culture to watch women's sports on TV here, but I think after these Olympics, it will be more valued," she says.

The fact is, one of Brazil's greatest footballers ever is a woman. Marta Vieira da Silva was named FIFA World Player of the Year a record five consecutive times. But she's really only gotten love outside Brazil. She was on the field yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Shouting in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The woman seated behind me couldn't stop shouting her name. Jose Trajano is a well-known Brazilian soccer commentator for ESPN Brazil. He's been covering the sport for decades, but he was not swept away by the energy and the number of fans at the stadium. He says he thinks Brazilians will forget about female football once the Olympics are over.

JOSE TRAJANO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Maybe because Brazilians are sexist," he says. "Most of the best female players are on teams outside Brazil so they can survive. If not, they die of hunger," he says. "During these Olympics," he tells me, "this team managed to win Brazilian hearts. But because you don't have championships here, the press doesn't write much about female football and the TV doesn't show many matches, the enthusiasm will wane," he predicts.

The match between Sweden and Brazil ended in a draw and was won on penalty kicks. The final score was 4-3, and Brazil lost. It will play for the bronze Friday. One of the top female strikers in the history of the Olympics, Cristiane Rozeira Silva, was interviewed on TV Globo after the defeat.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: The presenter asks her what has to happen for women's soccer to get better in Brazil. Cristiane responds by making a face, and then she says, we lose, and then people will think I'm making an excuse because, oh, girls are saying that we need more support. But to make a difference, she says, it does have to start at the bottom, in the schools. Win or lose, female soccer has to be given follow up, she says.

She now goes back to play for her team in France, but a lot of little girls have seen her on TV playing in these Olympics, and that could make all the difference. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.