Heading into this tournament, one of the few things that felt certain was that this was to be the last hurrah at a World Cup for Brazil’s feared foursome of Marta, the G.O.A.T. of women’s soccer; Cristiane, her long-serving battering ram of a strike partner; Formiga, the 41-year-old marvel in midfield; and Barbara, the youngest of the four, in goal.
The four legends of Brazilian and women’s soccer as a whole deserved a send-off commensurate with their enormous contributions to the game over the years, and they more or less received it with an impressive, exciting, hope-inducing run that unfortunately came to an end in a narrow loss to France, one of the tournament’s favorites, on Sunday in the round 0f 16. And though this is likely the last time we’ll see those players in the game’s premier tournament, the reverberations of each of their world-shaking impacts on the sport as a whole will be felt for generations to come.
The hosts ended up victorious, by virtue of a 2-1 extra time victory that at times felt like divine intervention, and at others, as sure a sign as any that Brazil, so important in the rise of women’s soccer, were just too war-weary to advance.
The Seleção entered Sunday’s round of 16 matchup coming off two high-throttle games in the group stage, and the grueling nature of their effort showed—on Brazil’s biggest names especially. (Though it’s worth pointing out that the young guns of France were outplayed by the wily Brazilian vets for much of the match, but France’s clinical finishing—two goals from three shots on target—made the difference.)
Formiga, who had been so important against Jamaica and in the first half against Australia earlier in the World Cup, came back into the side after serving a one-game suspension for yellow cards. She was great defensively on Sunday, but was clearly gassed by the 75th minute, when she came off for Andressinha.
Barbara was fine on the day, not tested by France too often—she only had to make one save—and she wasn’t really at fault for either goal. If anything, the 30-year-old goalie’s biggest contribution was getting just enough of her hands onto the ball to allow for an overturn of Valérie Gauvin’s 24th minute goal:
Cristiane didn’t last the full 120 minutes either, although her substitution was due to an injury in the 96th minute. That the striker, who scored a World Cup-leading five goals in four games, would see potentially her last World Cup match end with an injury is unfair; that it would happen when Brazil needed her and her scoring instincts most is a mild tragedy. Cristiane had been the one player of Brazil’s core to play up to her max potential this tournament, particularly in the opening match against Jamaica, where she scored a hat trick with ease:
And then there’s Marta. The best and most important women’s player ever is still capable of taking over games, but for shorter periods of time than before. There were instances against France, particularly late, where Brazil’s No. 10 would take up a ball, dribble past one or two defenders, and try to set a teammate up with a chance on goal. She led Brazil in a handful of relevant attacking categories on Sunday, including crosses, attacking third passes, and chances created.
But just as often, the pace and precision that has defined her game for years was absent against France. The Marta who tore through the 2007 World Cup on the way to the Golden Ball, or even the one who scored four goals in 2011, is no longer, and so it makes sense that, according to Barbara, this World Cup and next year’s Olympics will be Marta’s final international tournaments with Brazil.
These four Brazilians, and especially the three field players, have been around for the most important period in women’s soccer history. Formiga was born at a time when women’s soccer was outlawed in Brazil. Cristiane has been a top scorer in tournaments dating back to the 2004 Summer Olympics, and she is one of just three women to score a hat trick in Olympic play. And Marta was the best player in the world at a time where women’s soccer was in a post-1999 hangover. It’s safe to say, as SB Nation’s Kim McCauley did earlier this month, that Marta is the most important figure in the sport’s ascent to where it is now.
Whenever Brazil suit up at a World Cup next, they will do so with a very different team from the one that kept up with France for two hours on a summer night in Le Havre. This is likely it for this generation of players that helped drive women’s soccer firmly into the public consciousness. Formiga is 41 and wasn’t able to last the full match on Sunday. Cristiane just turned 34 before the tournament. Marta is 33 and still great, but is clearly on the downward curve. Barbara, being only 30 years old and a goalkeeper, could have at least another World Cup in her if she wanted, but she could very well decide to step aside along with her fellow members of that golden generation.
As she left the field on Sunday, Marta gave an emotional interview that, essentially, served as a call to arms for the next generation of players to take up their mantle:
She asked that Brazil’s youth give it their all to help build on the foundation that women like she, Formiga, and Cristiane have built. “Cry in the beginning so you can smile the end,” said the emotional captain and figurehead, and it’s not hard to see that as both a farewell and a rallying cry for those women and girls watching and learning from history’s best players.