Marta pulled it off where many in football have tried and failed, talking about herself in the third person with striking dignity.
“There’s not going to be a Formiga forever, there’s not going to be a Marta forever, there’s not going to be a Cristiane.”
Arguably the greatest female footballer, Marta’s call to arms in the moments after Brazil’s World Cup exit to France was instantly iconic. We are used to footballers taking for granted the world’s attention, coasting their way through post-match formalities, especially in defeat.
But an emotional Marta, gesticulating wildly, spoke with the urgency of somebody borrowing the world’s attention for 30 seconds.
“I am asking the girls. Women’s football depends on you to survive. Think about it, value it more.”
The same emphatic elegance and clarity of purpose she showed at another iconic moment in her career, when a solo goal contributed to a 4-0 mauling of the USA at the 2007 World Cup.
Twelve years on, Brazil doesn’t yet have a professional women’s league. The 2014 men’s World Cup cost the country around $15 billion, and brought its biggest embarrassment. But home-based female footballers still can’t make $500 a month.
Veteran midfielder Formiga, born when women’s football was still illegal in Brazil, reluctantly made this her seventh World Cup at 41, because youth structures haven’t produced anyone good enough to replace her.
“I had fought so hard for recognition for women’s soccer,” she said before the tournament, “and I wanted conditions to get better for us women players, and it hadn’t happened.”
The three legends, though well off their pomp, played their parts in France. Striker Cristiane became the oldest player to score a World Cup hat-trick, at 34. She has been an important social voice in Brazil, speaking freely of her struggles with depression.
And while other Brazilian players opted to use the global spotlight to plead with their football authorities for help, Marta’s instincts sent her direct to the people most likely to make any difference.
She asked a generation of girls to demand change, warning them it won’t come easy. “We’re asking for support. You have to cry at the beginning and smile at the end.”
The next generation of girls watching at home have been a constant presence at this World Cup, though not an overbearing one.
As Jaccqui Hurley put it, on RTÉ’s new women’s sport podcast The W , of the TV coverage: “We chat for about five minutes about the big picture and then it is onto the football.”
So for the most part we have been able to appreciate the poise of Spain’s Jennifer Hermosa, the verve of England’s Lucy Bronze, the guile of Caroline Graham Hansen, and the sixpence spins of young American playmaker Rose Lavelle. It has slotted unassumingly into our summer, this World Cup.
There have been thrilling matches, though too much has hinged on the dog’s dinner Fifa has made of the rules. And at times, after the final whistle, it is possible to picture all these women on the same side in a bigger battle.
We have grown used to Lisa Fallon’s dossiers of players’ hobbies. To Stephanie Roche’s clipped footballese. To Kevin Doyle’s niceness.
If you believe broadcasters, viewing records are being broken worldwide. Though the personal testimonies carry as much weight. Fallon’s ear being bent by every taxi driver in Dublin. Louise Quinn being stopped in the street by small boys wearing Arsenal shirts.
Of course there has been the usual tendency to make everything a referendum on the game and on women’s sport. Are the goals too big? The keepers poor? The referees up to it? The pace too slow?
We know where that is coming from. In the Washington Post last year, basketball star Devereaux Peters described the reality of life in the WNBA.
“A few weeks ago, as I was walking down the street to my car, a man stopped me to begin a conversation about my height.
Everywhere she goes men want to show her they could do better. She cried at the beginning but now she smiles and laughs it off.
Sometimes, concern for the girls at home has gone overboard. Phil Neville, who inherited Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat but not his self-awareness, seems to have taken ownership of women’s football, telling us how ashamed he was of Cameroon, after they lost the rag in defeat.
Neville keeps telling us he fell in love with the game 18 months ago, as though he’d never seen a football match before. But then there were no referendums whenever they lost the rag at Old Trafford.
“I came to this World Cup to play a part in making women’s football globally more visible,” Neville said, urging Cameroon to think of the girls at home. It might be the most depressing thing Marta or Cristiane have ever heard, that the game still relies on the likes of Phil Neville for visibility.
But this keen eye on the bigger picture means female players are required to be role models and spokespeople, whether they like it or not. The likes of Italy boss Milena Bertolini is comfortable with that: “It’s much cleaner play, free of the idiocy you see in a men’s game.”
Though, in truth, there haven’t been many teams in France shy about delivering a reducer when required.
There wouldn’t be many, in the men’s game, drawn into a row with their president during a World Cup finals, as Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger have been. Though Rapinoe’s straight shooting didn’t do her any harm in last night’s quarter-final.
Rapinoe and Kierger were just starting out back in 2007, when an outspoken generation of American players didn’t take defeat by Marta and company lying down. Instead, they inspired the next generation of girls to value everything more.