When Sisleide do Amor Lima would join the boys in her neighborhood for a kickabout on the streets, even aged six she knew it was illegal for females to play football. But she did not care.
Sometimes her mother would drag her away by the ear, reminding her single-minded daughter that there was no future in Brazil for girls who wanted to play the beautiful game. That’s just the way things were.
“I’m going to prove you wrong,” Sissi, as she would more affectionately become known to the world, would boldly retort during the long march home, the boys continuing to play on in the background. “I’m going to play for the national team.”
But, at the time, there was no Brazilian national football team for women. In 1941, as women’s football was growing in popularity, the Brazilian government pushed through a decree that said females “will not be allowed to practice sports incompatible with the conditions of their nature.” It meant women were banned from playing football, rugby, water polo and various track and field events. Brazil’s military dictatorship would affirm the ruling when it came into power over two decades later.
Under such circumstances, it was perhaps understandable that Sissi’s father dreamed only for his son, Paulo, to become a professional footballer. With misogyny as much a fabric of Brazilian society as football, how could he have contemplated that it would be his daughter who would become one of the greats of the game?
The young Sissi would watch father and son kicking the ball back and forth on the dusty streets, pretending to score goals for their beloved Brazil. It was here, “in the middle of the jungle” as she describes her hometown, observing the father she loved to impress, that the beautiful game captured her heart.
Football’s virtue is that it can be played anywhere, and not necessarily with a ball.
While in the 16th century the English would kick around an inflated pig’s bladder, a six-year-old Sissi used a doll’s head. So good did she become, fights would break out between boys over whose team she could play for.
“The boys accepted me,” Sissi, speaking from her Californian home, tells CNN Sport.
“There were times I had to pretend to be a boy. I knew there was a law, that we had a President who said girls shouldn’t be playing soccer. I ignored it.
“I was in the middle of nowhere — who’s going to know I was playing soccer with a bunch of boys? There were times I got into a lot of trouble. The parents were like ‘what is she doing?’ but I didn’t care.”
The prohibition ended in 1979 after leading figures in Brazil’s feminist movement joined forces during the country’s political awakening. The National Sports Council saddled players with rules like shorter game times and full-body protection, while women were not allowed to swap jerseys after matches but, nevertheless, the game grew.
By now, Sissi’s father had started a new job in the city and would return with tales of a women’s team in Rio de Janeiro. Emboldened and inspired, the 14-year-old begged to be allowed to leave home to play for a team in Feira de Santanta, he second-most populous city in her state and a three-hour drive from her hometown.
“Scared,” is how Sissi describes her mother’s initial reaction. “But my dad was the one who said, ‘this girl was born with a gift so let her go.’ My mum was good at making sure I’d be a strong woman.”
As the youngest living with 10 other hopefuls, there were many adjustments to be made in the city, but Sissi’s rise was rapid. Within three years the playmaker had moved to Salvador to play for a club that was paying her just enough to get by and had been invited to train with the national team.
But for the-then 17-year-old to train with Brazil’s new women’s team, parental consent had to be given. It was time for mum to be cajoled once again, something the indefatigable teenager was turning into an art form.
“Because I was under age you had to have permission from your parents to be able to travel,” she explains, retelling an old tale ebulliently.
“My dad was away working. There was no way he could come back and I needed both their signatures. I remember my mum saying, ‘what am I going to do?’ and I said ‘I don’t care, you have to find a way to sign my dad’s name because I need to go. You have to fake his signature.'”
Her obstinacy paid off. Sissi trained with the national team but it would be four years later, at FIFA’s first invitational tournament for women hosted by China in 1988, that the player who would become known as the “Queen of Brazilian football” made her international debut.
There was no talk of tactics or analysis, Sissi recalls, nor any focus on fitness. The first women to represent Brazil in the country’s national game relied on their natural talent, of which they had plenty.
“We looked like dogs,” Sissi jokes, referring to the ill-fitting kit the team wore for the 12-team competition.
For a number of reasons, her first trip to China was memorable. It was the first time she had traveled on a plane, while the political climate of the time meant the team was accompanied by security wherever it went. “It was definitely different,” says Sissi, laughing.
But the memory she cherishes the most is of those moments in the dressing room before her debut when she was given the No.10 shirt, becoming the first woman to wear the iconic number made famous by three-time World Cup winner Pele.
“Putting on that jersey for the first time, I was crying like a baby,” Sissi says. “I’m wearing the No.10 shirt and have no idea what that means and only later start to figure out what it represents, especially in Brazil. It was a lot of pressure, too. People comparing the No.10 with the men’s No10. It was very weird.”
Sissi scored her first international goal in China, against then European Champions Norway, but it was over a decade later, at the 1999 Women’s World Cup hosted by the United States, that Brazil’s playmaker announced her talent to the world, scoring one of the great goals in the tournament’s history.
On a balmy summer evening in Washington DC, As Canarinhas (the female canaries, as Brazil’s women are also known) had allowed a 3-0 lead slip in the quarterfinals against Nigeria. With the match locked at 3-3 in extra-time, the Golden Goal rule hovered over both sides like the sword of Damocles. A goal would immediately end the contest. It was sudden death.
Thirty-five meters from goal, wide to the left, Brazil is awarded a free-kick. It is not the sort of position from which players usually score, but Sissi takes the ball. She closes her eyes and envisions the ball hitting the back of the net.
“I practiced a lot with the goalkeepers, making sure I challenged them after every session. That moment I said ‘that’s it,'” she recalls.
Nonchalantly almost, just as she had imagined a hundred times before, she curls the ball in at the near post.
For a moment, in that pregnant pocket of time, she loses control, embarking on a wild celebratory run. She flaps her jersey, then waves her arms. Her heart is thumping, she is roaring. It all passes in a blur.
“I spent a lot of time working on that. Probably the best moment of my career was there in the United States,” says Sissi, who would end the tournament sharing the Golden Boot with China’s Sun Wen as Brazil secured a third-place finish.
Three months before the start of the tournament which would define her career, on a rainy evening in Salvador, the midfielder had sustained an injury while playing futsal, threatening to end her participation before it had even begun.
“I hit my face on the floor and broke some of the bones on my face and the doctors said I had to have surgery,” she explains. “But I said there was no way I could have surgery because I would miss the World Cup.
“I went to the training camp. I basically didn’t say anything to the medical staff. No-one knew exactly what happened besides some of my teammates. I didn’t want to miss the World Cup because I knew something special was on the way.
“You have that feeling. I prepared myself well. I took care of myself and my body. I was mentally prepared. During the games, I was never the player who scored a lot of goals, I was the playmaker, so when I started scoring goals I was like ‘oh my gosh.’
“The fans started noticing you. It was very different for me because I didn’t have that experience in Brazil, people coming to the stadiums, bringing signs with your name, asking to sign autographs. Having people starting to pay attention to women’s soccer was definitely something very special.”
Shy but comfortable in her own skin, Brazil’s No.10 not only stood out during that celebrated World Cup because of her touch and wit. There was also the shaven hair, too. “For people in Brazil it was shocking,” she says of the hairstyle which was the outcome of a promise she had made to her teammates.
“Everybody was in the bathroom and Formiga did it. ‘Sorry Sissi, you promised, you got to do it,’ she said. I guess I was the first female soccer player that decided to be bald during the World Cup.”
But there was another reason why she continued to sport a haircut which had shocked so many in her homeland. On arriving in America, the team manager had received a request from a school for the player to meet a 12-year-old boy who was being bullied because he had lost his hair as a side effect of the cancer treatment he was undergoing.
“That was life changing for me,” says Sissi, who still has a picture in her home of her and Julius, who would later die when Sissi was on holiday in Brazil.
“I didn’t speak English at all, but to be in that classroom with the boy, I had a chance to see and get in touch with his soul. It was definitely a moment that changed my life because I could see what he was dealing with because it was the same thing I had to deal with in Brazil, people were looking at me and saying ‘what’s she thinking?’
“To honor him, I said ‘I will continue to shave my head.’ But a lot of people had no idea what was going on. There were two reasons, one was special.”
Despite the disadvantages the team faced, Brazil went on to finish third at the 1999 World Cup. It was not easy for the Brazilians to excel, Sissi admits, but the sacrifice each player had made created an unbreakable spirit. In certain respects, she says, not much has changed in Brazil regarding attitudes to female footballers.
France 2019 will be the first Women’s World Cup where matches will be broadcast live in the country, but women’s football is still in the shadows. CONMEBOL, football’s governing body in South America, has scheduled Copa America, the continent’s major men’s tournament, at the same time as the Women’s World Cup, just as it had in 2015. The finals of both tournaments will be held on July 7.
“We didn’t have a lot of support. We didn’t get paid, we didn’t get sponsors, we put our heart out there,” she says of the 1999 team.
“We wanted the same structure as the men. Not having the right uniform, or to have to sometimes change in the training center and go to the hotel because the men have the training center. The women always came second. It was not easy.
“We knew we didn’t have the luxury to buy a lot of things, it was impossible. I had to save every penny to buy a house for my family because that’s what I said the first thing I would do if I make money from soccer is provide a house for my family.
“It was $15 per diem from the federation — it was not enough. You cannot even pay your bills to do that. We knew money was being given to them, but we didn’t have a chance to see the color of the money whatsoever. Who knows where that money was going.
“My generation opened the doors, but we cannot say now everything is perfect because it is not. Even now in the United States they are still fighting. It’s changed from when I was playing, but not much.
“In Brazil, we have talent, but it has to be more than talent for you to win something. It comes with our confederation. They are the ones who have the power to make the change. But, also, the girls have to make sure they get together, they have to be united if they want to make that change happen because if not we’re going to be talking about this every year.”
For the last two decades home for Sissi has been California and her influence on the game continues. She coaches soccer at Solano Community College in Fairfield, California, where 2,000 girls are registered to play. She describes herlself as a demanding and intense trainer. Dissolving into laughter, she concedes she is addicted to football.
“I love this sport so much,” she says. “I gave everything to my country, to my sport, and now I’m giving as a coach. I’m still waiting for the day where we can look and say, ‘we’re getting paid well, we’re having the recognition, we can watch on TV.’ Who knows.”
Last year the Brazilian was featured in a book written by Chelsea Clinton about 13 women who changed the world.
Her inclusion in the book had a significant affect on Brazl’s first female No.10 because up to that point she had thought little about the impact she has had on others.
“The first question was ‘why me?’ What’s so interesting about me that I have to be in the book,'” says Sissi, whose autograph was cherished as much as Clinton’s during the book signing.
“My friend said ‘Come on Sissi, I don’t think you know who you are. I don’t think you understand how many lives you’ve impacted. Take this moment. Enjoy.’
“That was a unique moment. I embrace that without changing. I’m still the little girl who came from the middle of nowhere, I’m still the same person. But that hit me very hard.
“I think that moment, I finally came to the realization that you touched a lot of people’s lives. I’m OK with that. I’m very grateful.”