SAO PAULO (AP) — It was the 100th minute of a physical and tense game in the quarterfinals of the women’s Olympic soccer tournament. Sweden was moving the ball dangerously down the right flank when, out of nowhere, a Brazilian player came sprinting to make a perfectly timed sliding tackle.
The player was 38-year-old Miraildes Maciel Mota, known simply as Formiga, or ‘ant’ in Portuguese, a nickname that she picked up because of her tireless and hard-working style of play.
It was another typical piece of defense from the veteran midfielder, who was all over the field on Friday to help Brazil defeat Sweden on penalties and stay on track to win its first gold medal in women’s soccer.
Formiga is one of a kind at the Olympics.
She is the only player to have participated in all six editions of the women’s Olympic tournament. She is also the Brazilian women athlete with the most Olympic appearances, and is level with a few other athletes in team sports with the most ever Olympic appearances.
A 20-year veteran with the national team, Formiga played her 151st game with Brazil in the opener at the Rio Games, surpassing men’s defender Cafu as the nation’s most-capped soccer player.
“Wow, I never imagined this could happen,” Formiga said in a post-match interview with Brazilian media. “It had gone through my mind the fact that I was the older player to score a goal, to have the most Olympic appearances and other things like that, but not something like that.”
Formiga is not as recognizable as five-time world player of the year Marta, but her record numbers at the home Olympics have put her in the spotlight, with many local media outlets doing television pieces and interviews with her. Shy and soft-spoken, she doesn’t enjoy the attention, but is taking it for the team.
“I’m happy because what we want is to attract visibility to women’s soccer,” Formiga said. “And the more we can do to help the sport, the better it is.”
Women’s soccer is virtually non-existent in Brazil, especially at club level, so Formiga played abroad for many years, including in Sweden and in the United States. Despite her incredible numbers, she never achieved the stardom that a men’s soccer player would have achieved in her position.
But she remains a key player for the Brazilian team trying to finally break through with Olympic gold, in charge of protecting the defense and keeping Marta and the other forwards free to attack. She plays box-to-box as well as any other player in the women’s game, although she is mostly known for her intensity as a defensive midfielder, which is what helped her get the ‘ant’ nickname when she was a kid playing in the streets of the northeastern city of Salvador.
Formiga helped Brazil win two silver medals at the Olympics, in 2004 in Athens and in 2008 in Beijing. She won three gold medals and a silver at the Pan American Games, including the gold at home at the Maracana Stadium in 2007.
She has already said that this is the “last time” she is playing at the Olympics, and that returning to the Maracana for the final and winning the gold for the first time would be the perfect ending to her career.
“There would be nothing better for me,” she said.