There’s a lot of history on display at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, but no player represents more of that history — the heroics and the heartbreak, the progress and the barriers — than Formiga, Brazil’s 41-year-old midfielder. This is her seventh World Cup — which, as one might guess, is a record for men and women.
She is a living, breathing symbol of how far women’s football has come in the last four decades, and how far it has left to go. Because when Formiga was born in 1978, it was illegal for women to play football in Brazil.
In 1941, the National Sports Council in Brazil drafted Article 54, a decree which said that women in the country “will not be allowed to practice sports incompatible with the conditions of their nature,” such as football, boxing, rugby, polo, water polo, and multiple track and field events. These events were slated to be too “violent” for women, and there was excessive concern by the white men in charge that the sport would interfere with a woman’s sexuality and femininity.
“Football became so important, infused with national identity and ideas about virility, masculinity, modernity, Brazilian race politics, that it wasn’t surprising that in 1941, the Brazilian government banned it for 40 years,” Dr. Brenda Elsey, associate professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author of Futbulera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America, told ThinkProgress.
Women and girls continued to play football during this time — a testament, of course, to the power of the sport and the tenacity of women in Brazil — but they had to do it in the shadows. Sissi, a Brazilian football legend, famously learned to play the sport by kicking doll heads, since she didn’t have access to soccer balls.
But the ban remained in effect until 1981, when Formiga was three years old.
“I you think about progress that way, if you think about — okay, Formiga was born and literally, it was illegal for Brazilian women to play football. She’s playing on a national team that didn’t exist when she was born, and not only did it not exist, it was against the law — if you think about it that way, it’s amazing,” said Elsey.
Formiga was 17 years old when she played for the Brazilian team in the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden. She was 18 years old when women’s soccer debuted at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. There has literally never been a women’s soccer tournament in the Olympics that didn’t include Formiga. She thought about retiring before this World Cup, but decided to stay when she realized the team needed her — it still has not cultivated enough talent to replace her.
“I was frustrated,” Formiga told the New York Times. “I had fought so hard for recognition for women’s soccer, and I wanted conditions to get better for us women players, and it hadn’t happened.”
Unfortunately, women’s football in Brazil remains rife with sexism and bigotry that have stifled its growth — the men in charge of the sport in the country seem much more concerned with making sure the women look feminine and remain calm and composed than in investing in their success in the sport.
“Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on make-up. They go in the field in an elegant manner,” Marco Aurelio Cunha, the head of co-ordination for women’s football in Brazil, said in 2015. “Women’s football used to copy men’s football. Even the jersey model, it was more masculine. We used to dress the girls as boys. So the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hair styles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.”
In 2017, a few prominent Brazilian players — including Formiga — wrote a letter to the Confederation of Brazilian Football (CBF) protesting the CBF’s decision to fire the women’s national team’s first female coach, Emily Lima, after just 12 matches, and reinstate the team’s former head coach, Oswaldo Fumeiro Alvarez, more commonly known as Vadão.
The letter didn’t do much good. Vadão is still the team’s head coach, and in May, he told reporters that women were particularly emotional and hard to calm down in the locker room, and that might be why they were struggling in the lead-up to the World Cup.
These sexist ideals fuel inequality. As Elsey wrote in SBNation this month, men’s professional soccer players in Brazil can earn as much as $125,000 a month, while women only earn about $500 a month.
Of course, none of this sexism is exclusive to Brazil — in fact, it isn’t even the only nation that has banned women from playing football. In 1921, the Football Association — the governing body of football in England — banned women’s football because it was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Primarily, it took this step because it was threatened by the popularity of the women’s game, which had soared during World War I. The ban was officially in place until 1971. Germany, meanwhile, banned women from playing football in 1955, and didn’t lift that ban until 1970. And many women are excluded from the sport due to racist and religious discrimination, as well. In Iran, women are still not allowed to even attend men’s football matches, since they are banned from sports stadiums. FIFA just lifted its hijab ban for women’s footballers in 2014, while France still has its hijab ban in place. There is a long way to go until true equality is reached.
Formiga is expected to be a starter on Sunday when Brazil faces the hometown French team in the Round of 16. France is the favorite, which means there’s a significant possibility that this will be Formiga’s final World Cup appearance. But, no matter the outcome, or how many more years the still fit and healthy legend has in professional football, one thing is certain: She’ll never stop fighting for progress.
“There are more teams in the women’s league, more championships and more women who want to play,” Formiga said. “But the structures are too small. Girls need more chances, more training.”