In the late 1990s, just as Marta was beginning to shoot to prominence, the queen of Brazilian football was named Sissi.
As Canarinhas‘ totemic No10 and most sparkling attacking talent, Sissi was the most sought-after figure among the autograph-hunters back then.
Hailing from the state of Bahia, Sisleide Lima do Amor – to use her full name – was one of the pioneers that put her country on the women’s football map.
A long-time poster girl of the Brazilian female game, the pinnacle of her career came at the FIFA Women’s World Cup USA 1999™ where, as well as going away with a bronze medal, she shared the adidas Golden Boot with China PR’s Sun Wen and scooped the Silver Ball all for herself.
“That World Cup was amazing,” the former star said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, “Recalling it still gives me goose bumps. It was the experience of a lifetime.”
No exploration of the most unforgettable moments in the 25-year history of this competition could be complete without rewinding back to the 1999 edition and commemorating the wonder strike with which Sissi took Brazil through to the semi-finals.
First we must set the scene. The quarter-final tie, held on 1 July 1999, pitted the Brazilians against Nigeria in Washington DC.
By the 35-minute mark, A Seleção had raced into a 3-0 lead, but the Africans came storming back in the second half and equalised in the 85th minute, forcing extra time.
“We got complacent. We went into the break thinking that the match was in the bag. The Nigerians caught on to that and capitalised.”
This is Sissi’s explanation for the extraordinary turn of events through which the encounter came alive again. Then, in the 105th minute, the referee awarded Brazil a free-kick 20 yards out, slightly to the left of goal.
Sissi took a deep breath, stepped up and unleashed a beautiful strike that clattered home off the upright. Her memories of that instant remain vivid:
“Right then the feeling came over me that we would make history, that it was our time. I still find it difficult not to get emotional when I see that goal. That game undoubtedly changed my life.”
It was an effort worthy of winning any match and it did just that because, as Sissi proudly recalled: “It was the first golden goal in women’s football.”
At that time, the rule whereby a single strike would end contests in extra time remained in force.
Not just spectacular but historic too, the goal warranted a special celebration – and it got one. Once the ball had hit the net, Sissi was off, breaking into a seemingly directionless sprint as passionate as it was actually full of intent.
“I went nuts during that run. I’d been feeling the pressure to show the Brazilian people that we women had what it takes to play football.
“It wasn’t about comparing ourselves with the men’s game – what we wanted was to stake our claim to a place of our own. At that moment I shouted to tell everybody that we were there, that our work deserved to be respected, to make them recognise our abilities.”
“I couldn’t sleep afterwards because my adrenaline was pumping. That was one of the most important goals of my life,” she said.
An unforeseen scoring streak
That was Sissi’s seventh goal of the tournament, a tally that defied all expectations for two major reasons. Firstly, in her own words:
“I was never a player who scored a lot of goals. My role was more about setting them up. Even I was surprised when I started scoring freely at that World Cup. I was the playmaker, not the one who finished moves off,” she laughed.
The second factor heightening the unlikeliness of her exploits was the injury that the 32-year-old carried into the competition.
“Before the World Cup I suffered a facial trauma playing futsal. They considered the option of surgery, but I was against it because I didn’t want to miss the World Cup.
“I don’t know, I had a hunch that something special might happen. I played with broken bones in my face and luckily I didn’t have any problems,” she revealed.
The risk was richly worth the reward. Sissi has the mementoes to show for it back at home, which these days is in California, where she oversees the women’s youth football programme at Solano Community College.
“The No10 jersey from that match is one of the few I’ve still got, because I tended to swap shirts.
“I also brought the Golden Boot and Silver Ball with me from Brazil. Sometimes I take them to the club so the girls can have their pictures taken with them. It’s a way of inspiring and motivating them.”
Brazil would go on to lose 2-0 to the hosts in the semi-finals on 4 July, but Sissi and her team-mates bounced back from that blow to defeat Norway on penalties in the play-off for third place.
“It was a historic World Cup that gained women’s football international recognition,” said the erstwhile attacking midfielder, who recently enjoyed the opportunity to shadow current As Canarinhas coach Vadao during a few warm-up friendlies ahead of this year’s Olympics in Rio.
Having fast-forwarded back to the present day, it is only fitting we come full circle, back to the woman who inherited the No10 shirt and the status that comes with it. On this note, Sissi was at pains to stress her admiration for her successor: “Marta is a one-of-a-kind player,” she said.
“I met her when I was playing for Vasco da Gama as a professional and she was in the youth ranks. You could tell even back then that she was a special player, different class.
“The fans think that there’s competition between the two of us, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our styles are totally different.
“She was born with a gift and I respect her hugely. Every generation has its icons and Marta is the best possible standard-bearer for Brazilian women’s football right now.”