Her story so resembles the stuff of fairy tales it is scarcely believable. At the age of eighteen, Marta is well on the way to becoming an icon. Discovered only two years ago, the Brazilian playmaker has enjoyed a remarkable 2004. So remarkable, in fact, that the prodigy looks set to become the next undisputed star of the women's game, taking over the mantle from Mia Hamm, who is hanging up her boots. Possessing great skill and power, combined with the strength of character that is the hallmark of all great players, Marta is truly a phenomenon.

Standing 1.69 metres tall, weighing 58 kilos and tomboyish in appearance, Marta hardly stands out from other young girls, at least not at first. But once you notice her eyes, you quickly revise that view. Talk football with her, look into those eyes, and you will instantly comprehend the passion which drives her.

Like so many Brazilians, it is a passion that has gripped her since her earliest childhood.

At Dois Riachos, her home village, she used to follow her brothers onto the pitch. Her mother did not interfere, despite the reservations of onlookers, but her brothers were not quite so understanding. "My elder brother used to get mad with me and run after me when he saw me playing. 'You'll see what happens if I catch you,' he would tell me, but he never did catch me because I was faster than him," she recalls with a smile.

At the age of 14, she left her family for the bright lights of Rio to embark upon her fledgling career, playing first for Vasco da Gama, then São Martins. Just two years later, Marta was illuminating the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship Canada 2002. Aged sixteen, she was already a cut above the rest, netting an awesome hat-trick in the final group game against France. Although strictly speaking a midfielder, she still chalked up six goals in Canada, finishing the tournament as third highest scorer.

Last year, Marta led the Brazilian side to the semi-final of the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003, where she ensured that Brazil did not miss the absent star of the team, Sisi. During 2004, she has entered the public consciousness, signing a contract with the top Swedish side Umea in March as a replacement for the injured Hanna Ljungberg and promptly winning a first trophy in the shape of the UEFA Cup.

Marta: "I think about my mother"
Leaving sunny Brazil for frosty Sweden has been quite a wrench, especially aged only 18, but she is determined to stick it out in order to free her nearest and dearest from poverty. "Since 2000, my life has been like a whirlwind. I left for Rio, played in a World Cup, signed a great contract in Sweden, and then won a silver medal in Athens. It's all been absolutely fantastic. Thank God, I can now help out my mother. When I'm working, I think about her and my family," she revealed recently to FIFA.com.

The peak of her career so far has surely been the Athens Olympic Games, where the young girl was a sensation, carrying the Seleçao all the way to the final. "We were perfectly aware that Marta was one of the handful of players capable of turning a match. She's a natural left footer, like Maradona, and is not easy to stop," admitted Adrian Santrac, the Australian coach.

The plaudits show no sign of abating, and there have even been murmurings that Marta is the heir apparent to the mega-star of women's football, America's Mia Hamm. So is it all going to her head? Not at all, for it remains firmly fixed on her shoulders. "Of course I am happy to hear people say that I'm one of the best players in the world, as all athletes aspire to be the best. But I know I still need to work to improve as a player. Because that's what sport's all about: always raising the bar."

Motivated by the virtues of hard work and the desire to improve, Marta knows where she comes from and where she's going. At the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship Thailand 2004, she provided great entertainment value, before Brazil bowed out in the semi-final. A provider and goalscorer, she gave her all, showing joy and pain on the pitch with gestures and expressions that will no doubt become her trademark. "When you play, you try to give the best of yourself, and if you fail, you have all this aggression which must have an outlet," she explains.

In football as in life, Marta embraces every experience with relish. Perhaps the best tribute comes from her team-mate and friend, Cristiane, the other half of women's football's most exciting partnership. "I am a big fan of the way Marta plays. With the ball at her feet, she is capable of doing incredible things. I admire her skill and her success, which is down to hard work and self-sacrifice."