27/05/2014 13:10 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 06:59 BST

Football in Brazil: It's Different for Girls


Favela Street girls in training in Penha

Take a motorbike around the hairpin bends and tiny alleys of the Favela Penha in Rio de Janeiro, and you'll see Rio's trademark enclosed football pitches on any precarious space available. This is a city with football in its blood - but until 1979, girls were banned from playing the beautiful game as it was viewed as being incompatible with the female form.

Penha is also home to Favela Street, a girls' football team which won the recent Street Child World Cup, featuring youngsters from 19 different nationalities who were all former street children. As well as fighting opposition from parents and husbands who still believe football is a man's game, the coaches give advice to the girls, aged 12-18. When I visited, some of the girls had recently been offered money by an older man. As well as the usual team talk about tactics and working together, coaches talked to the girls about why this had happened, and why they ought to say no to such offers. Yet when the game got started, the men who stood around watching were commenting on the tricks and skills they saw, not on the physical appearance of the girls. For that time at least, they were able to forget about any other problems, and focus on the serious business of scoring, defending and working as a team.

All the while, heavily-armed police stalked around the football pitch, a reminder that the community has its own problems with violence which residents must live with every day.

Coach Maria Andrade da Silva, 36, was born in a small rural town in Paraiba, north east of Brazil, but came to live in Penha as a child. While her passion was always football, she was kept firmly away from playing for most of her life.

"I played football as a child, but my mother hated it," Maria told me. "She said it was a man's thing, and she banned me from playing it.

"As I grew up, I felt trapped in the house. I wanted to be a footballer, but I wasn't allowed to play. I put on a lot of weight and felt angry and sad. I didn't help others the way I do now.

"When I found out about this project, it meant I could play again. My husband still doesn't accept it, but I have two daughters and one of them wants to be a footballer. I told her I will do anything I can to help."

While some of the other girls dream of turning professional, they know it is not as easy as having talent and a strong will to succeed. "Women's football is not valued in Brazil," says one player, Jessica Maria. They idolise Neymar and the other stars of Brazilian football, but it will still be difficult for them to follow in his footsteps.


Juliana Cabral with her silver medal at Athens 2004

For the past two years Juliana Cabral, a tough defender who captained the women's national team in Athens 2004 to silver, has worked as a commentator on Radio Globo. Juliana, now 32, was at the top end of her profession, but still had to fight against the low funding levels and lack of official and media support for the women's game.

"Women should get work in the football industry because they are good at what they do, not because of what they look like," she said. "But this country is like that. Boys get given balls to play with, and girls get given dolls."

Her career has been a series of triumphs against the prejudice against girls who play football or want to be involved in it in some way.

"My dad wanted a son who played professionally, but my brother didn't like to train. He supported me, but my mother tried to stop me from playing. My first victory was against a PE teacher who tried to ban me from playing. In school, I was always the last to be chosen because boys didn't want to play with a girl, but when the boys saw me play, they realised I could do it and started to pick me for the team," Juliana remembered..

Juliana, like Maria, was told by her mother that she must stay in and wash the dishes instead, but her ever-supportive brother made a deal with her, and they teamed up to wash up as quickly as possible so that Juliana could join the boys outside waiting for her to join them.

She was signed at just 15 to a professional side, and not long after to represent her country. That ultimately led to glory in Athens, and heights the male team have never achieved in the Olympic Games, though her career was uncertain after injury forced her to quit the sport.

"I was lost, after a career which had lasted 15 years, but as I had never turned down an interview, and had won a medal at Athens, the opportunity arose to be a commentator. While there are always female presenters, there is still prejudice against women who have an opinion about football. I still experience that, and still feel like giving up all the time. But it spurs me on to learn more, to do better. The good thing about radio is it is not a visual medium," she said.

That was no help for lineswoman Fernanda Colombo, who was told to "go and pose for Playboy" by Cruzeiro football director Alexandre Mattos after she made a series of errors in a critical match last month. It is an example of the attitude which still unfortunately pervades for girls and women who are involved in any level of football.

While I do think that can be true in any country in the world, Brazil is a particularly macho society and girls still get subjected to insults or ridicule just for having an interest in playing football. The FIFA World Cup presents a great opportunity for children all over the country to meet people from different cultures and experience the magic of the game, the benefits of which go well beyond physical exercise, as the Favela Street project shows. It is vital that those benefits are felt by girls as well as boys. For that to happen, all levels of society must engage with the need to reach girls, from the big institutions such as the Brazilian Football Confederation to the smallest groups working with children at a grassroots level.