Marta: A true virtuoso
© AFP

For the fourth consecutive year, Brazilian maestro Marta is back among the finalists for the FIFA Women's World Player award. And after her spectacular showing at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007, she is in with a great chance of holding on to the coveted prize she picked up at the 2006 Gala. The gifted attacker is currently enjoying one of the most fruitful spells of her career, though the path to the summit of women's football has not always been easy.

Battling against the odds is something this prodigious 21-year-old has grown used to since taking her first steps in the game. Football may be a religion in her native country, but back in the days when the young Marta discovered her passion for the sport, girls were largely discouraged from playing, a standpoint shared by her family.

Determined to pursue her dream, Marta left her hometown of Dois Riachos at the age of 14 for the bright lights of Rio de Janeiro, starting out at Vasco da Gama before making the move to Sao Martins. In 2004, Europe came calling for the youngster, Marta packing her bags once more and heading for Sweden.

Aged just 18 and far away from her loved ones in a land where the language and weather were alien to her, the determined teenager sought to overcome the many obstacles she faced by showing just what she could do with a ball at her feet. When club side Umea offered her the chance she had been denied at home, she was eager to make the most of it.

And that is exactly what she did. Today, three years on, the free-scoring forward is a world star. As well as the glittering award she picked up in Zurich last December, the youngster has also pocketed two Pan-American Games gold medals, a silver medal at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004 with the Seleção, and a runners-up medal at China 2007, not to mention winning the UEFA Cup with Umea.

Yet nothing has moved her more, perhaps, than the recognition she received from her compatriots at the Estadio Maracana. It was there, at the temple of Brazilian football, that the No10 left her footprints in the Hall of Fame, becoming, in the process, the very first woman to line up alongside national legends such as Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Romario and Ronaldo, to name but a few.

Such is the sheer range of gifts at her disposal, it is difficult to describe what makes Marta such a special player. A mean turn of pace combined with the maziest of dribbling skills can unhinge even the tightest of defences. And with her innate goalscoring instinct, fearsome shooting ability, unselfish passing and willingness to help team-mates out of tight spots, she has become the complete player.

A reserved character off the pitch, she is the leader of the Brazil pack on it, bubbling with energy and seemingly immune to fatigue. Her only weakness is perhaps in the air, standing as she does a mere 1.60 metres tall.

The rest of the world caught its first glimpse of Marta when she took part in the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship Canada 2002 at the tender age of 16. And a year later she was back in the global spotlight at the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003.

Seen as a promising rookie on those occasions, by the time Athens 2004 came around she was the undisputed star of the team and the foundation of their gold medal hopes - hopes that were ultimately thwarted by USA in an extremely close final. It was a role she occupied once more at the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship Thailand 2004, and although Brazil limped home in fourth place, Marta's stunning individual performances earned her the adidas Golden Ball.

A brilliant 12 months was capped by her third place at the 2004 FIFA World Player Gala. A year later she had climbed into second place, duly completing her rise to the top in 2006. Clutching the much-coveted award in her hands, Marta announced her goals for the year ahead, and although her club missed out in the UEFA Cup final, the Brazilian sensation rediscovered that winning feeling when the girls in the canary-yellow jerseys struck gold at this year's Pan-American Games.

The FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 seemed set to cement Marta's status at the very top of the women's game. Though she may have missed out on a winners' medal, her performance throughout the event on Chinese soil was nothing short of outstanding.

Even taking into account her penalty miss at a crucial point in the final against Germany, Marta was undoubtedly the star of the show. Her seven-goal haul earned her the adidas Golden Shoe and she also took home the adidas Golden Ball award - 51 per cent of voters choosing her as the tournament's finest player.

Perhaps the match that will live longest in the collective memory was the semi-final clash against the USA. Marta delivered a sublime display, packed with skill and competitiveness, and capped it all with two superbly-taken goals. Having earned the admiration of football fans across the globe, the question is: what is next for Marta?