The end of Formiga’s career is in sight but her battle will not be over then. The 43-year-old is the only player (male or female) to have played in seven World Cups and seven Olympics and while she is still playing club football for São Paulo she is also aware that there is a job to be done once she stops playing.
Formiga is known as the indefatigable player of Brazilian women’s football. She has always talked about her commitment to the sport and how she has taken care of herself to enjoy such longevity on the pitch. Now, though, her voice is starting to become as prominent as her game.
“I was always really reserved,” she tells the Guardian before revealing that for every year that passed she became more and more aware of the importance of what she represented as a black, lesbian footballer. “We now have the freedom and respect of people who admire our work – and that gives me the confidence to speak up.”
Formiga has suffered prejudice throughout her career and that has made her wary of public attention. But with growing support towards women’s football, she feels that the world is now a safer space to share pictures and videos of herself and her wife, Erica, and to talk about her race and sexuality to the media.
By doing so, she hopes to inspire others. “I believe there are girls that may still be afraid to come out,” she says. “When we show our lives to people, we can also inspire a family member to think differently, and that they can accept their children the way they are. What we really hope and wish for is to have 100% respect. That we can go anywhere without prejudice, to restaurants and cinemas, that we can be seen with good eyes, because like it or not, we’re doing good for each other.”
For most of her life Miraildes Maciel Mota had to deal with many challenges, not only related to the attitudes towards her being an athlete but also because of her sexuality. There has been a rise in awareness towards the LGBTQ+ population in Brazil and their rights but there is still a lot of violence. “I’m not saying that this prejudice is over. But there’s no way for us to hide any more,” she says. “We live in a different era.
“When I started playing football we didn’t have the protection we have today. Back then people’s minds were really bad. Now we live in a different era, in a new world. So I think we need to show ourselves and earn the respect that didn’t exist before.”
Even though Formiga has seen a lot of changes in Brazil, she wants more to be done. It is not only female footballers who are abused. Recently the Flamengo forward Gabriel Barbosa was the subject of racist abuse from Fluminense supporters. “It is extremely unfortunate that we still see these racist issues,” Formiga says. “It should have been eradicated from society by now, not only in Brazil but in the rest of the world too. I think there needs to be stricter punishments for these attitudes so that it becomes a deterrent for people, a lesson that this can’t happen any more.
“People need to respect other human beings, respect people who are doing some good things. It doesn’t matter if some fans don’t want to accept that another team is better but they need to see that they are human beings, that we are all the same, and we need to respect that. The law needs to improve, it needs to be stricter.”
Formiga says she has felt the need to join fellow players in their battle to end discrimination in football. She believes the Brazilian FA (CBF) can do more and become a role model for other areas of the world. “We can become an inspiration for other countries, a reference,” she says. “The football associations need to campaign [against the prejudices] all the time, as do players, not only from football but from all sports. There needs to be a joint effort to make sure that our law changes as quickly as possible so that we can deal with this.
“People need to be educated. Sometimes they don’t see what their actions are doing to another person. So we can start something, together with the government and the justice system, to have more severe punishments to fight racism once and for all.”
When Formiga was born, in 1978, women’s football was still banned by law in Brazil. That changed a year later and, four decades on, she knows her personal story is connected to the history of the women’s game. She also feels she is worthy of people’s respect because of her achievements.
The midfielder, who played an incredible 234 times for her country, was part of the most successful generation of Brazilian female players, winning two Olympic silver medals. She has played for years alongside legends such as Marta and Cristiane but for a long time it was not easy to know the real Formiga. She avoided the spotlight and only used the attention to ask for better support for her fellow players. Having played in Brazil, Sweden, the United States and France, she is now using her experience to advise younger players how to navigate their careers.
“I tell them to never stay in the comfort zone,” she says. “Nothing is going to happen if they don’t put the effort in or if they’re not committed. I always wanted to encourage the girls I had the opportunity to play with so that they can believe in their potential and appreciate our sport at all times, because it is a constant struggle. We hold hands and keep fighting to improve the women’s game worldwide. That way we can fight for equality, for our rights and to be more recognised every day.”
Formiga is content at the moment. She is happy to focus on her club and happy to consider everything that she has done. “I feel fulfilled knowing that everything I do can change lives.”