USA - April 08, 2023 09:00New US Women’s National Team Has Deep Brazilian RootsTafa: Pioneering LegendInterview by Steve Harris - Futsal Japan

Cover photo credit: US Soccer

Coming on the heels of FIFA’s announcement that at some point there would be a Women’s Futsal World Cup, the appointment of Marcia Tafarel as head coach of the newly launched US women’s futsal national team elicited interest far and wide. Though no national league for women exists in the US, the abundance of competitions makes for a pool of experienced players ready to step into action. The inevitable question on the minds of many is: Who is Marcia?

In Tafarel’s native country of Brazil, there is no such question. “Tafa,” as she is known there, is a bona fide legend due to her prominent role in the first generation of organized women’s football in Brazil, which did not really take off until 1981. Why did it take so long? Enacted in 1941, “Decree Law 3,199,” a piece of odious legislation in Brazil that forbade females from taking part in sport, was not lifted until 1979 – at which time Tafa was already an accomplished player, competing informally with boys and men in her native state of Rio Grande do Sul. And though blessed with rare ability and a passion for the game, to this day she mainly credits her mother as the essential advocate who encouraged her to reach higher.

In the early ‘80s Tafa left behind her home of Bento Goncalves and took an 18-hour bus ride to Sao Paulo, where she would find a place at the club SAAD in Campinas. At about the same time, female players at Radar Esporte Clube emerged from the beaches of Copacabana to become the first major women’s powerhouse in the outdoor 11-a-side game. Radar formed the foundation for the first-ever Brazilian national team to compete in FIFA’s first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Tafa was an outsider who had to prove herself equal to the Radar mainstays to crack the squad, but did indeed find a place. Her role as a first-generation trailblazer was firmly established by her inclusion in the Canarinhas lineup at the 1996 Olympic Games, the first time women’s football was included in the program.

Wearing #5 when representing Brazil at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, US (Photo courtesy: FIFA)

Finding True Passion in Futsal

As the women’s game took off in Brazil in the wake of the lifting of Decree Law 3,199, clubs big and small offered both soccer and futsal to female players. Tafa recalls, “Futsal had the advantage because fewer players were required and there were gyms everywhere. There would be only two soccer tournaments a year but maybe four or five futsal tournaments. I tended to prefer futsal more – and had more opportunities to play it. In fact, I found myself doing soccer in the day at futsal at night.”

While making a name for herself in the outdoor game, Tafa achieved an equally storied career in futsal. At the age of almost 30, when deciding to transition from playing to coaching, she made the decision to specialize in futsal and would have no difficulty finding coaching positions in the sport, moving from the likes of Corinthians to São Paulo and even Palmeiras. However, it was her time at Associação Sabesp’s youth team that she would win many titles and even Coach of the Year honors from the Paulista Futsal Federation in 2003. As history would show, the importance of Sabesp to the development of women’s futsal in Brazil cannot be overstated.

“There were more women coaching futsal than soccer, and I had an incredible mentor in Maria Cristina (“Cris”) de Oliveira,” the Associação Sabesp coaching coordinator and later the head coach of Brazil’s first futsal women’s national team. Tafa’s love affair with futsal also resulted from having a front row seat to the golden age of the sport. “Falcao is of course an amazing showman, but Manoel Tobias was the complete player. Since the women would play in the same halls as the men at the time, after my own games I would make a point of staying to watch Manoel and Ulbra if they were playing. Among the women, at the time Sissi was the female Tobias – with a powerful shot, the ability to dribble around others and set up teammates to score.”

Cris de Oliveira, head coach of Brazil’s inaugural futsal women’s national team, and Tafa holding the trophy from winning the first ever Brazil Women’s Youth Championship (Photo courtesy: Tafa’s private collection)

The Inevitable Journey to the US

Routinely included in lists of the best female soccer players of all time, Sissi would tell the media that she was a better futsal than football player. And the legendary Brazil international plays a starring role in the life of Tafa. “In 2004, I had been unsuccessfully studying English in Brazil and was urged by Sissi to come to the US, where she played professionally in two different leagues, first for the CyberRays in the WUSA and then for the California Storm in the WPSL. Though I found it hard to believe at first due to my age, she told me that I would be able to play professionally in the US. She also warned me that I might never want to return to Brazil again.” Prophetic words.

“When I arrived, it did seem like paradise because there were girls playing the sport everywhere.” In 2004, Tafa was delighted to find that female soccer players seemed to outnumber the males – but futsal had not yet arrived. Enter Ricardo Da Silva, another Brazilian who emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area and took it upon himself to start a futsal league in 1999 so that his son, a former Vasco da Gama player, could continue in the sport. Coincidentally, Ricardo, who had long provided Tafa with her sole futsal connection in the US, was the one to see US Soccer’s posting online for the position of futsal women’s national team head coach.

Though Tafa was skeptical, Ricardo and longtime US Futsal director Alex Para were adamant that she apply for the position. “I had coached at high levels in Brazil, but, aside from my own playing career (which ended in a championship title at the US nationals in 2018, the year in which Tafa celebrated her 50th birthday), it’s only been during the last five years that I’ve been able to once again coach futsal extensively.” But US Soccer was clearly impressed by the applicant, and by early 2023 decided on appointing Tafa to the head position. It had only been slightly over a year since she received American citizenship (on Jan. 22, 2022)

The guiding light who facilitated Tafa’s move to the US, Brazilian legend Sissi feels she was better at futsal than soccer. (Photo courtesy: Midia Ninja)

Solidarity in the Brazilian Futsal Community

Tafa is realistic about the time needed to develop a competitive US national program for women. “Since the World Cup is not going to be held until at least 2025 or 2026, we have two or three years to develop a competitive squad. Right now, I’m planting the seeds, like I did in Brazil.” The plan is to spend a year spotting the key players who will form the base of the national team pool. “Physicality and athleticism are the strengths of our players now. My job is to introduce technical ability and the futsal brain: things such as knowing when it’s impossible to go forward if you don’t have the numbers, when you need to reset, and when you need to go backwards to rotate and create space.”

The first real test for Tafa’s first generation of players is likely to be friendlies within CONCACAF against the likes of Mexico and Central American countries that are also in the process of building viable women’s national teams. Beyond that lie the Goliaths of other confederations: Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Iran, Japan – daunting foes who have a significant head start. “When I got the job as national team head coach, I realized that I needed to go back to re-evaluate and re-educate myself; look for courses, get tips from high-level coaches now. I reached out to my mentor Cris and Marquinhos (Xavier, head coach of the Brazilian men’s national team) and said, ‘Guys, I need your help!’”

One common thread throughout Tafa’s epic futsal journey is the rock-solid solidarity shared by Brazil’s futsal global community. From the help she received in the earliest days of her relocation to Sao Paulo to Cris’ mentorship at the launch of her futsal coaching career, Tafa’s journey forward was further facilitated by Sissi’s invitation from American shores, Ricardo’s Bay Area league, and now Marquinhos’ generosity in helping her update her coaching toolbox. And her past oddly appears in ways such as seeing her former Sabesp students and current Burela teammates Cilene and Dany compete as opponents in the recent Spain-Brazil friendlies.

Star pupils of Tafa, Cilene and Dany, born one day apart and both played for Sabesp. International rivals since Dany took Spanish citizenship. (Photo courtesy: Burela FS)

Empowering Women’s Futsal with Brazilian Flare and American Egalitarian Rules

In 1972, four years after Tafa was born, Title IX was signed into law by US President Richard Nixon. Title IX is American legislation mandating that federally funded schools provide sports programs equally to both males and females. Since the enactment of this law, there has been a seven-fold increase in the female population in university sports, while the general population has grown only 1.6 times its 1972 size. Arguably, women’s soccer has been the greatest beneficiary of the effects of Title IX, generating an infrastructure that has produced four champions in the Women’s World Cup and a successful professional league (attendance average of almost 8,000 per game; highest paid player has a four-year contract valued at US$1.1 million).

That’s why the promising beginning for the USFWNT (the acronym for United States Futsal Women’s National Team) is by no means a surprise. As US schools and club teams develop female players at a feverish pace, futsal’s infrastructure and annual calendar for women are similarly undergoing continuous upgrades, not the least of which is the formation of a new women’s division in the NFPL (National Futsal Premier League, currently the top American futsal league).

Though born into the very heart and soul of futsal, Tafa bore witness in international competition to the rise of the women’s game in the US while battling forces that sought to marginalize her in Brazil. Now freed of those forces, she has license to use the futsal DNA in her veins to build a structurally sound flagship for women’s futsal in her newfound home. She stands to be the catalyst that weds the heart and soul of the game with the empowering and egalitarian spirit of sports in the US. The result should be quite formidable.

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