What do you do when you have one of the most accomplished players of all time on your squad, and she’s facing her last international game? If you’re Pia Sundhage, you give her fifteen begrudging minutes at the end of the game, and then baldly tell the world you don’t understand her legacy or what she means to football fans.
The opening night of the Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino saw 57th-ranked India meet the first of three South American national teams in a 7%-filled stadium nestled in the Amazon rainforest. It was a lowkey choice for the swansong of a player who has played in 4 distinct decades, 7 World Cups, and all 7 Olympic Games since women’s football was included. Formiga also took part in the 4-0 thrashing of the USWNT in 2007—their worst defeat ever—and made her international debut when Marta was just 9 years old.
Miraildes Maciel Mota was born in Salvador, Brazil, a year before the government lifted the ban on women’s football (decreed in 1941 by the National Sports Council and affirmed in 1965 by the country’s military regime). Against her brothers’ wishes, little Mira started playing on the streets of her hometown just a few years after the Brazilian Football Confederation started to develop the women’s game in 1983. She was on a team by age 12; at 15 she joined her first professional club, Sao Paulo, to whom she has recently returned. She got her first international cap at 17 years old, playing in the 1995 World Cup, and would go on to become the most capped player in Brazil.
Along the way she picked up the nickname that would become her professional moniker, Formiga, ‘the ant’, for her hard-working, collaborative style of play. This deeply respected staple of the national team developed her game in a club career that took her across Brazil, America and Europe. And as other players hung up their boots, she played, played and kept playing. At 43, she’s still playing—though Brazil’s game against India was her last international game, she will continue to play for Sao Paulo.
That night, for Brazil fans, the gulf between the teams meant the focus was largely on the retiring legend. For Indian fans and those who follow the growth of the women’s game and the emerging teams stepping up to take on the titans, it was a fascinating match-up that could have been planned and marketed infinitely better. Either way, for many supporters, the chance to mark #FormigaDay and watch the pioneering international in her final 90 was a set-the-alarm occasion. Except, it didn’t go that way.
At 1am GMT, fans were tweeting “why isn’t she starting?” Twenty minutes in, we were invested in India’s undaunted approach and Manisha Kalyan’s flamboyant equaliser which caught Brazil keeper Leticia unaware. By halftime, as Brazil exacted their revenge, “where’s Formiga?” rang across Twitter, and “Formiga, where are you?” echoed around the stands. The second half: more goals, five subs, no Formiga. The legend, stoic on the bench in training bib. No movement. 70 mins passed in Formiga’s retirement game, and finally she was sent to warm up. 78 minutes ticked around, and she was allowed on the field gallingly late, after it seemed the heat of the game had died down. She took every chance that came to her; her teammates steered the ball to her—but having conceded 6 goals, India were allowing no more, and what could have been the icing on a record-breaking career felt like a damp squib, a testimonial denied.
Formiga was graceful; fans livid. Worse was to come. The only thing more stunning than Sundhage’s casual ‘fine, go on then’ subbing decision was her comment after the game.
“The reason Formiga played only fifteen minutes is because she’s not in the future. And we have to build for the future.”
The disrespect to Formiga’s legacy is deafening. The future requires a foundation. Imagine coaching the WNT in one of the most evocative football nations, where its stars require only one name to be known around the world, and not seeing why the final game for a player who beat the odds, changed the sport, and outlasted many of her successors, is a big deal. Imagine not understanding that for the future of the game, gathered in Sundhage’s locker room, its legacies set a standard and inspire the greatness they all strive for. Young players certainly need minutes, but nobody significantly benefited from the 80 minutes denied to Formiga in her final game against a team that Brazil comfortably beat 6-1.
Catastrophic too is Sundhage’s blindness to the value fans place on a player as formative as the Brazilian pioneer. Fans travelled to remote Manaus to see her. Football has just got fans back into stadiums after a COVID-enforced pall—what a shame to pretend their support doesn’t matter. Many tuned in from multiple time zones to watch her final international flourish. In a game where India held their own and Brazil had to wake up and work for the advantage, the story instead became Formiga’s absence. That’s on Sundhage.
And while coaches are not obliged to build their strategy around parents, it did feel cruel that Formiga’s mother Dona Celeste—terrified of flying and never able to see her daughter play before now—braved the friendly skies and made it to the game, only to watch Formiga ride the bench for 80 minutes. Contrast it, if you will, with the fanfare and interviews with Carli Lloyd’s parents at her final game, in which Lloyd played the first 65 minutes after endless weeks of promotional build-up. Could a middle ground not be found?
Above all, Sundhage betrayed an obliviousness about what makes football magical—or a disastrous indifference. For all its stats and strategy, football isn’t hard science. Why do people obsessively watch 44 feet knocking a ball around, or support woefully unsuccessful clubs for decades? Because it transcends its parts. Football is storytelling. It’s the most human of sports; a working-class emergence that can turn regular kids with a pair of shoes and a ball into icons. It’s a global theatre in which tales are told and embellished; villains are cast, heroes are made, and future generations are inspired; underdog teams overcome adversity, and teams of superheroes dazzle millions of fans or screw it up spectacularly. For all the money and obvious corruption in the game, it connects with people from every social class on every continent because it’s relatable. Football has soul.
Sundhage is a seasoned manager with an illustrious pro career behind her, an animated character who totes a guitar on the tour bus with her and connects with her players through impromptu song. You might think she’d understand the human heartbeat within the beautiful game, and the need for the right ending to an epic story that started with a seven-year-old girl taking a beating from her brothers in the streets of Salvador for playing football. Women’s football was illegal when Formiga was born; she ended her international career in the record books at 43 years old with 234 caps, having already been hauled back from a 2016 retirement because Brazil wasn’t ready to give her up. Sundhage’s breathtakingly dismissive comment betrayed a basic indifference to any of that and ripped the final pages out of the book.
If this accomplished coach lost the Brazilian locker room over this, it wouldn’t be an injustice. She can’t undo what she took from one of Brazil’s greats that Thursday night, and the rest of the squad might wonder how easily they’ll be discarded, if even Formiga Eterna is treated like an afterthought. What will Marta’s retirement look like? Why should they want to play for a coach who regards them so cheaply? This year has offered the beginning of a reckoning with how coaches treat their players and wield their power, and female players are starting to demand the respect that many of them have been denied for decades.
Football is a merciless, competitive world. Everyone is replaceable, sooner or later, and the emphasis should be on a team, not on one player. But how you say farewell to a player matters, especially when that player, over 26 years in the game, earned her reputation and her moniker with her team spirit, her work ethic, and what she gave to her sport, letting others do the talking about her greatness. This team player of team players, the giant named after a selfless ant, deserved a send-off, and the Indian and Brazilian squads who crowded her afterwards for hugs and photos did their best to deliver that. So too did Marta, offering her flowers on bended knee. But she deserved a coach who valued her legacy—and so, arguably, do the whole Brazilian roster. If Pia Sundhage is focused on the future, perhaps she should question her own.