By Andrew Downie
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s Olympic women’s football team was showered with joyous attention until their heart-breaking semi-final elimination on Tuesday which brought forward a key question: Was the interest the start of something big or another false dawn?
Brazil does not have a season-long women’s league, forcing 13 of those in the 18-strong squad to ply their trade overseas.
But the Rio Games team had been grabbing the headlines and outshining the men’s side since kicking off on Aug. 3, prompting many observers to ask whether that focus will die out with the Olympic flame or broadcasters and sponsors will finally invest.
“When we got to the Olympic final in 2004… we thought that it would take off, that it would get sponsorship, that a league would be created,” said Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil coach at the time and the manager who led the men’s team to their 1994 World Cup triumph. “But nothing happened.”
The reason there was no interest then, or since, Parreira told Reuters, has everything to do with the chaotic administration of Brazil’s heavily indebted football clubs.
“Even the big clubs have financial difficulties,” he said. “So there isn’t enough money to invest in women’s football. But I hope that mentality is changing bit by bit.”
“The Olympics and the participation of the women who have always done so well, I hope it awakens the interest of the TV broadcasters and companies because without that you’ll never develop women’s football. What you are seeing here is that Brazilians also like women’s football.”
“Here” was the Maracana, where a capacity crowd watched Brazil outplay a defensive Sweden side only to lose 4-3 on penalties after the match finished goalless following extra time.
The home fans got behind the team throughout the game and a carnival atmosphere pervaded a stadium that regularly plays host to clubs such as Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo.
“We have the impression that the women are taking it seriously,” said Marcio Sousa, a Flamengo fan on his way to Tuesday’s game. “The men seem more interested in the European leagues than playing for Brazil.”
Some Brazilian clubs have women’s teams but they are very much the poor relation to the men.
There is no infrastructure for the women’s game, no national league – only a three-month long tournament at the end of the season – and very little investment.
The Brazilian Football Confederation pays for some players and a coach and that enables them to keep the national side going, no mean feat in a nation where women’s football was banned from 1941 to 1979 for being unladylike.
Fans who turned out to cheer on players such as Marta, five times World Player of the Year, and Cristiane, the leading goalscorer in Olympic history, are now hoping their support will be translated into something more permanent.
But history is against them as, perhaps, is culture.
“It’s all about machismo,” said Adir Fernandes, a middle-aged Vasco da Gama fan who came to the Maracana to see her first women’s game.
“They think the women aren’t up to it. They only talk about women’s football when the World Cup and Olympics come around. In Brazil, only men’s football gets money and attention.”
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ken Ferris)