It has been a week to remember for Catarina Macario, the Brazilian-born, San Diego-bred midfielder who for years has been touted as the future of the US women’s national team but at the moment appears increasingly bound to its present.
Three months after receiving her American citizenship, the 21-year-old playmaker wept tears of joy with her family last Wednesday after receiving confirmation from Fifa of her approval to represent the four-time world champions in international play. The paperwork was finalised a day after Macario signed a contract to start her professional career with European champions Lyon, forgoing her senior season at Stanford University. Then on Monday night, she cut the figure of a polished veteran while making her USA debut in a 4-0 friendly win over Colombia at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium.
It is the culmination of a journey – and a gigantic gamble – that first took shape on a different continent more than a decade ago.
Macario became attached to the sport from an early age growing up in São Luís, Maranhão, on Brazil’s northeastern coast, taking after her older brother, Steve, and playing in pick-up games in the neighbourhood. She cut her teeth as the lone girl among boys, first with the Cruzeiro youth team she joined aged five and later for a Santos affiliate after the family moved to Brasília where her mother, Ana Maria, was completing her surgical residency.
Knowing she would no longer be permitted to play on boys’ teams after her 12th birthday and her opportunities to develop would be severely limited, Macario’s parents were forced to make a difficult choice in order to cultivate their daughter’s gift. Her father, Jose, moved with the two children to San Diego where the infrastructure and support for women’s soccer was far more advanced than in Brazil. Her mother stayed behind in Brasília to offer financial support.
“Both of my parents wanted to give my brother and me a better experience, a better quality of life, and the chance to experience a different culture,” Macario tells the Guardian. “And obviously it was around the time I would have been barred from playing with boys. So we were just thinking like, what to do next? And obviously we knew that women’s soccer is more popular in the US. So it almost just became an easy choice. Not an easy move, but an easy choice.”
The move to San Diego offered a number of challenges. None of them spoke English except her teenage brother, who was thrust into the role of interlocutor when the family needed to buy a car or rent an apartment. All the time, Ana Maria’s absence made young Catarina question if the dream was worth it – and feel like failure was not an option.
“As a 12-year-old girl, it’s quite hard to be without your mother,” Macario says. “There were definitely some instances where I just had that coming in the back of my mind, whether it was the right thing to do. A lot of times I just felt bad, you know? Because it’s like here she is, she’s trying to, she’s essentially having to support us and just keep working over there, while we’re here in this great country, you know? And she’s trying to support the whole family, but also just hoping that this soccer endeavour will work out.
“And so to me, it was just a little bit challenging while not having my mom and also at the same time, just having this pressure on me that I need to do well. It’s like, is it really worth it?”
Whatever pressure Macario experienced in those first years on US soil served her well as her career progressed. As a stylish playmaker and devastating finisher for youth-club giant San Diego Surf, she developed into one of the top players in the girls’ soccer hotbed of southern California, drawing the attention of college scouts from as early as middle school. After accepting a scholarship offer to attend Stanford, she scored 63 goals in 68 games and helped lead the Cardinal to a pair of national championships while twice winning the MAC Hermann trophy as the top collegiate player in the country.
While Macario was eligible to play for either Brazil or the United States, her preference was never a question. “I had already made that decision before moving here,” she says. “Despite having had invites from Brazil to play with them, I just did not want to play for a federation that does not support or view as equal, my sport, you know? I just did not want to reinforce that idea that’s like, oh, this is OK.
“At least when I was there, it was just very shunned upon to be a woman playing soccer. There is still a lot of discrimination around that. And just because they think that women should, I don’t know, like if they want to play sport, it’s like go play volleyball, because it’s pretty, you know? Do anything but play soccer.
“So that’s a hard mentality to swallow, because I feel anyone is entitled to anything. And that’s thankfully how it is here. If you want to play whatever you want to play, you can play. If you can play, you can play, period.”
Two of Macario’s long-held dreams were realised in the span of a few hours on 8 October when she officially became a US citizen and was named to the roster to attend her first USWNT training camp.
“It felt like the biggest relief and a weight off my shoulders. I’d felt American for the longest time,” she says. “And so I just needed a piece of paper to almost validate that. And to have waited so long and to have gotten this approval within 30 minutes, it was just almost comical, you know?”
Macario bubbles with enthusiasm at the prospect of helping the US national team on the pitch, where she will try to earn a spot on the 18-player squad that will travel to the Tokyo Olympics this summer. But she is equally keen on joining a group that has become known as much for their unwavering commitment to social justice and fearlessness in leaning into thorny political issues as their dominance.
“I think at this day and age, where social media and the platform that elite athletes have, I think it’s very important that we don’t just stick to sport, you know?” she says. “After all players are humans. I look up to them even more, not only because they’re so badass, but because they know exactly how to use this great platform that they have and to inspire others to speak out to tell what’s really meaningful to them, and hopefully try to spark some change. It’s definitely something that I’ve looked up to them a lot for. And it makes me even more happy and grateful to be a part of this team.”
It’s Marcario’s social consciousness and sense of morality that informed her decision to forgo her senior season at Stanford and sign a two-and-a-half-year contract with Lyon. Ultimately, it was the French club’s demonstrated track record of gender equity that captured her spirit.
“They have such world class players and I think playing in that environment every day will really take my game to the next level,” Maracio said. “But also because they’re huge on women’s equality, you know? That’s something that’s very important to me, and something that I wish other teams would mimic. Because I think a lot of people underestimate the value that women’s sports and women’s soccer has in general.
“I want to be a part of something that is spearheading the movement, if that makes sense? I’m actually investing in seeing myself as an equal to my male counterparts. When you have that type of investment in your sport, that’s how you can really grow. And that’s how you can become the best version of yourself that’s possible.”
Macario demurs when asked about with the breathless hype that’s accompanied her ascent and arrival with the national team – she’s been hailed as a generational talent and a cornerstone of the team for years to come – but also doesn’t hide from the headlines.
“It’s very flattering, especially because I have yet to play a professional game, you know?” she says. “Of course, I highly value the compliment. But at the same time, it’s just like, ‘OK, let’s get to work’, you know? So that I can actually fit into this idea that people perceive of me.
“It’s very flattering, but I don’t see myself as that. I just see myself as this rookie that’s trying to find her spot, you know? Do I think that I can get there? Totally.”