Imagine for a moment that five-time reigning FIFA Player of the Year Marta isn't Brazilian. Imagine she's American, from California, perhaps. Imagine she doesn't wear her first name on the back of her jersey, but rather her last name. Imagine even that she doesn't wear the No. 10, the number that is supposed to mean she's the best player on the team. Let's give her something far less assuming, like No. 17, perhaps.
Imagine that this player, this No. 17, raced into the penalty box with the ball at her feet and was converged upon by Brazilian defenders -- one grabbed her jersey and they both tumbled to the ground. The defender received a red card and a penalty kick was awarded. After a Brazilian midfielder encroached on a first PK attempt, No. 17 converted to tie the game.
And then imagine No. 17 was booed and whistled at for the rest of the game -- for that?
Imagine that in extra time she scored one of the most skillful goals we've ever seen -- tying the record for most goals in Women's World Cup history -- and gave the U.S. team a 2-1 lead.
And she was booed again.
Then imagine -- with the game now in penalty kicks -- No. 17 stepped up to take her shot. And she was again whistled and booed as she converted her penalty. Imagine that she wanted to win the game so badly that she yelled at a Brazilian player she thought had taken a dive to get up and keep playing.
We'd be so happy that she is on our team. We'd call her feisty and a warrior. We'd feel the boos and whistles were unjust.
Marta is not the only player lacking a little sportsmanship in this World Cup.
Just a day earlier in another quarterfinal, England's Kelly Smith fouled France's Sonia Bompastor, yelled at Bompastor to stop diving and then added a two-handed shove to Bompastor's chest. But somehow the whistles escaped her. When Smith -- who was so badly injured she could barely walk through 30 minutes of overtime -- converted her penalty kick, we called it what it was: tough, gutsy and clutch.
Earlier in the tournament, Australia's Heather Garriock bellowed at diving Equatorial Guinea players. The Matildas even played on and scored a goal in that game with a player down on the field, when they believed she was faking an injury.
Why is it so different with Marta? Do we expect her to not want to win?
She received a yellow card for yelling at the referee -- but she was just one of eight players to be booked. She also wasn't the only one to get it for dissent.
These games are competitive. Players get emotional. USA-Brazil is the most heated rivalry in the women's game. It was never going to be a clean and flawless game.
Marta didn't play the best game of her career Sunday. She hasn't played her best soccer in every game of this tournament. But she was still quite dangerous, and she came through when Brazil needed her.
Her first-half footrace with Christie Rampone was breathtaking to watch. Her penalty kick was well taken, amid chaos on the field. Her second goal of the game -- her record-tying 14th career World Cup goal, a one-time left-footed volley over Hope Solo in traffic in the penalty area -- is something few would even try, let alone score on.
Brazil finished second in the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics and both times were shut out in the final. Marta had frustrating games in both losses -- she had a penalty kick saved in the '07 final and a point-blank shot saved in the '08 gold-medal game. Sunday wasn't quite the final, but it played like one. The No. 1 and No. 3 teams were on the field. Marta came through with a performance that was every bit as tough, gutsy and clutch as Solo's and Abby Wambach's on the other side.
Marta's teammates let her down in the match. Erika's obvious fake injury in the second overtime extended the game and left time on the clock for Wambach's game-tying header. She deserves the majority of the criticism. Brazil's time-wasting tactics late in the game were difficult to watch.
Marta will be 29 and appearing in her fourth World Cup when Canada hosts in 2015. This was, perhaps, her best chance to finally win that elusive title. Yes, the Olympics are still a year away, but a World Cup win is the main focus of all teams.
If Brazil puts more support into the women's game and helps more players find opportunities to make the squad, she'll have a decent shot in 2015, but it's unlikely that a quarterfinal loss will do anything to move the program forward. After all, three straight second-place finishes only resulted in one warm-up game before this tournament for the team.
It's unfortunate that Marta's 2011 World Cup had to end so soon. Fourteen World Cup goals in 14 career games is an impressive résumé. It's hard to understand what she did Sunday that was so wrong.