RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Every Friday after nightfall, teenage girls and young women make their way through a middle-class apartment complex and take over a field of emerald green grass. They put on their cleats, tie their hair into ponytails and test their speed with agility drills.
The Friday night practice is the only time of the week when you will find women playing soccer here.
“Every day you see teams and teams of only men, and on top of it, we also had to fight for this slot,” said Bruna Cavaliere, a 16-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a professional player.
In a country where men’s soccer is ingrained in people’s psyche, women have found it difficult to find their place in sports because of the lack of athletic programs, funding shortfalls and what they call unfair marketing decisions that promote men.
But Brazilian female athletes are shining at the Rio Olympics — and people here are paying attention, some for the first time.
Each victory of Brazil women’s soccer team is savored with more enthusiasm, and female athletes in other sports are being celebrated in ways rarely seen in Brazil. When Rafaela Silva won gold in women’s judo — Brazil’s first gold medal of this Olympics — major newspapers splashed her photo on front pages.
“All the love we are getting during the Olympics, we hope that it doesn’t go away,” Brazil’s most famous female soccer player, Marta, said to reporters Monday ahead Tuesday’s semifinal against Sweden. “We hope that it lives on, and with that much-needed support, women’s soccer can grow and the love is not just a fleeting thing.”
Cavaliere, like most girls interested in soccer in Brazil, grew up playing with boys. At 4, she chased her older brother and his friends down the street with a ball. Later, she attended after-school practice where she was the only girl among the boys training with a 90s soccer star.
While boys could try out for dozens of under-17 clubs in soccer-mad Rio de Janeiro, she found only two places. At 14, she was chosen for the female youth squad of a famous Rio soccer club.
After practices, her teammates passed around a tin to collect money in the dressing room.
“It was so sad to watch. That money was for the bus fare or a bologna sandwich. Some girls had to choose between food and transportation,” Cavaliere said.
Some of her teammates also had to miss practice because of money problems.
“You think ‘hey Brazil, everyone plays soccer all the time,’ but when you are a girl and you want to get more serious about it, it is a lot more difficult,” she said. “It’s the country of soccer, but there are very few places where you can go.”
Many school physical education classes teach boys soccer and girls volleyball, a practice that dates back to 1965 when the military dictatorship banned girls from playing soccer and other sports. The dictatorship-era law held women back for decades as soccer continued to be perceived by many as too rough for women, academics say.
But thanks to the strong performances of Brazilian women at the Rio Games, fans are shouting “Marta!” at stadiums even when the men are playing. In Friday’s qualifier shoot-out against Australia, goalkeeper Barbara won the hearts of the country when she stopped an attempt.
“I never thought I would live to see the day when people would say ‘the men should play more like the women,'” said Jamile Marques, a 33-year-old biologist who founded and coaches the neighborhood soccer team Cavaliere plays on.
Some people have even scratched Neymar, the biggest star on the men’s team, off jerseys found in the busy flea markets to write Marta, who also is No. 10 in the team. That’s because Marta shirts are hard to find.
“They are very difficult to get because women’s soccer is not watched like men’s soccer,” said Jair Neves, 25, a salesman in downtown Rio.
Cavaliere’s father shares that sentiment. He urges her to give up playing and focus on studying. “He tells me I should stop because there’s no future for female soccer in Brazil,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever seen him watching women play on TV.”
The gender gap is not unique to Brazil. Women play far less soccer than men in much of South America and other parts of the world. In the United States — where women’s soccer is much more popular — female players filed a complaint for wage discrimination earlier this year, contesting their male counterparts are paid much more even when women have out-performed them.
Vadao, the head Brazilian women’s coach, said he hopes the Olympics is a start toward having more girls play soccer in his country.
“The hope that we have is that this will be the first stage and (we) have the motivation to develop the sport in this country,” he said Monday.
In the meantime, Marques, the neighborhood coach, encouraged Cavaliere and her mother to seek opportunities for the teen to play collegiate soccer in the U.S. “There’s no structure here for her,” says Marques, who feels she missed her shot of playing professionally by not applying for scholarships in American universities.
“I want to go to the United States because soccer is much stronger there and they appreciate it more,” Cavaliere said. “Maybe I can study and play.”
Associated Press journalists Renata Brito and Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.