Marta didn’t start in Brazil’s opening World Cup match, a comprehensive 4-0 win against a valiant but ultimately inferior Panama on Monday, but she only needed to slide her shin guards into her socks to send the crowd in Adelaide into raptures.

The all-time leading World Cup goalscorer swapped places with 23-year-old Ary Borges, who’d just completed a hat-trick, in the 75th minute, a symbolic substitution that was almost too on the nose — one of the most iconic figures in football relieving a young superstar for the final moments of a game that had already been put to bed.

The more magical and beloved the player, the stronger the desire to wrap them in mystical folklore, and, when the time is right, tie everything together in a neat, happy ending. If that process hadn’t already begun before 37-year-old Marta announced that this, her sixth World Cup, would be her last, it was certainly accelerated by it, and it was spurred by the eerily similar fairytale about another football legend seeking fulfilment: Lionel Messi.

Like Messi heading into the men’s World Cup last November and December, Marta is searching for the final jewel in her crown as the ‘Queen of Soccer’, as they affectionately call her in Brazil. It’s a convenient comparison, and there’s a satisfying balance of time, geography, and gender that makes it even more irresistible.

Marta (right) replaces Ary Borges (Photo: Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

But key distinctions between Marta and Brazil, and Messi and Argentina, make the former’s journey arguably even more enjoyable. Unlike the narrative around ‘Messi’s Argentina’, which depicted a lone superstar desperately in need of a supporting cast to propel him to glory, Marta is surrounded by consummate talents in their own right. Borges, along with players such as Debinha, Geyse, Kerolin and Rafaelle, are just as determined to usher Marta off the pitch with her first World Cup trophy as they are to solidify their own places in the football canon.

There’s also the matter of fitness. Marta suffered a torn ACL knee ligament last year and has played carefully-managed minutes since her return, which came at the SheBelieves Cup in February. Contrast that with Messi, who still has the ability to throw a team on his back and carry them across the line even at 36, and the necessity for a self-sustaining Brazilian side becomes even more critical. Marta will no doubt contribute throughout this tournament, but she will be relying upon them just as much.



After a long injury layoff, Marta is back

Brazil is unlikely to enjoy as uneven a matchup as Panama for the remainder of this tournament; the previous night, Jamaica held France to a 0-0 draw, yet another striking result in a World Cup that, while still in its early stages, has already shown that FIFA’s rankings mean little when it comes to the accelerating talent of teams outside of the traditional superpowers.

Nonetheless, Brazil made it count, smothering Panama with a high press and one- and two-touch staccato passes that made the heavily-Brazilian crowd swell with pleasure. At times, their heavy touches exposed the possibility that they might have been battling nerves, but Borges’ opening goal in the 19th minute offered immediate relief.

“It is difficult to score goals,” said coach Pia Sundhage, when asked whether she was satisfied by the final scoreline, or concerned that it wasn’t a bigger win. “I’m very happy. As long as we create chances, there is no concern. I’m satisfied with the combinations, and the fact that Panama didn’t score a goal.”

A hat-trick on your World Cup debut… it doesn’t get much better than that.

Ary Borges scores her third to put #BRA 4-0 up against #PAN — she is only the fourth player to score a hat-trick for Brazil at a #FIFAWWC


— The Athletic Football (@TheAthleticFC) July 24, 2023

The Sundhage factor also sets this Brazil side’s story apart from Messi’s in Qatar.

Selecao Femenina’s potential this World Cup has been significantly bolstered by the leadership of a coach who was in charge of the U.S. women’s national team from 2007 to 2011, helping them win Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012, and leading them to a World Cup final in 2011.

Brazil hired Sundhage in 2019. The Swede has spoken at length since then about the necessary cultural exchanges between her and the team in order for them to succeed. Team captain Tamires said that, after their gutting quarter-finals loss to gold medal-bound Canada on penalties at the Olympics in Japan two years ago, Sundhage promised them, through tears, that she would work to better connect with and understand them as a coach.

She started learning Portuguese and, while she isn’t yet fluent enough to respond to give full interviews, she frequently references Brazilian-Portuguese football concepts, like juntas (togetherness), paciencia (patience), compactacao (compression), and vigilante (vigilance), the latter being especially important on defense.



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Sundhage also understands when to step back and let the team flow on their own. In the lead-up to Bia Zaneratto’s 48th-minute goal here, Borges could have muscled her way through to score her hat-trick then. She was just meters from goal but, facing a Panamanian defender directly in front of her, dragged the ball behind her and moved out of the way for Zaneratto, who curled it into the side netting.

“I’ve not taught them this,” Sundhage said. “They’re Brazilians. They come up with different kinds of ideas in the box. There are times in the game that I expect a shot, but they don’t. The closer they get to the goal, I’m not teaching them anything, but out wide I expect certain things.”

Borges was suffused with emotion throughout — even before her first goal, which prompted her to sink to her knees in tears. She then specifically asked Marta to present her with the player of the match trophy.

Ary Borges (Photo: Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

“Playing with Marta was a dream that I had. I managed to live this dream, but after you meet the human being Marta, you start to admire her even more,” Borges said. “She doesn’t even realize how much we admire her, and we do things for various reasons, but she is one of those reasons, too.

“She is truly a person who motivates us, a player that has lived through so many things that allow us to have the fruits of her work, so sharing this moment with her is very special.”

(Top photo: Elsa – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)