Football Ferns' Riley not over-awed by Marta
It's a case of mate against mate for Football Fern Ali Riley tomorrow when she plays against women's football's world superstar Marta on the Olympic Games stage after two club championship winning seasons beside her.
Marta - full name Marta Vieira da Silva - will lead the Brazil attack against the Football Ferns in a tournament-defining game for the Kiwis in Cardiff.
The Brazilian skipper, who now plays in Sweden, won the world player of the year award five times on the bounce until Japan's World Cup winning captain Homare Sawa snapped her streak last year.
She's so good Brazilian football fans have dubbed her "Pele with a skirt'' in homage to the man many still believe to be the world's greatest footballer.
Marta wears the number 10 jersey adorned by Pele and the two serious contenders for his world great crown, Argentines Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
When crowds streamed out of the Millennium Stadium for Cardiff railway station after watching the Olympic Games curtain-raiser on Wednesday, Marta's name was being bandied about in reverential tones.
The crowd had just watched her score two goals - one from the penalty spot - in a 5-0 rout of Cameroon which catapulted the classy South Americans to the top of New Zealand's section.
Riley - New Zealand's best player in a 1-0 defeat to Great Britain - is a fully subscribed member of the Marta appreciation society. But she won't be in awe of her former teammate tomorrow.
Marta, now 26, and Riley, 24, played together at FC Gold Pride, a Californian club that won the 2010 Women's Professional Soccer title in the United States.
The Pride took a fall when the franchise folded but Riley, the 2010 US rookie of the year, and Marta were snapped up by the Western New York Flash coached by former All White Aaran Lines.
New team. Same script. Riley and Marta collected winners' rings again as the Flash won the WPS grand final, mobbing each other after the final whistle.
Riley said of Marta last year the Brazilian was "a great teammate'' and a "really hard worker''.
"She's got magic feet, she's unstoppable, she definitely deserves to be the five-time Fifa player of the year. I'm really glad I'm on her team and not playing against her.''
That was then, this is now. The Cardiff clash will be the second time Riley and Marta have duelled this year.
The American WPS league went belly-up this year so the world's best players, including Marta and Riley, slung their hook and sought new clubs in Europe.
The two-time US champions both ended up in Sweden, but at different clubs. Marta plays for Tyreso FF and Riley represents LdB FC Malmo.
"We played against each other once this year in Sweden,'' said Riley, who admitted it would be "really strange'' playing against her friend at the Olympics.
But the two pals said may not go head-to-head too often. Riley, a left back, expects her Brazilian buddy will play on "the other side'', the left side of midfield where Ferns right back Ria Percival will be charged with checking her progress.
Marta isn't about to rest on her laurels either.
"We had a great start,'' she said after the Cameroon rout. "But we want more. We are not satisfied yet. There is a lot of room for improvement.''
Riley has played against Marta at international level before, at the 2007 World Cup in China, "but I didn't know her yet''. Riley won't want to remember that result - Brazil won 5-0 with Marta striking twice.
But the Ferns have improved markedly since then and Riley thinks the Brazilians should worry about them.
Riley makes no bones about the fact that the Ferns must get something out of this game to keep their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals alive.
"It would be huge to beat Brazil and then Cameroon is a must-win for us, I think.''
- © Fairfax NZ News