Feature | Football

Catarina Macario: A superstar in the making

Born in Brazil, raised in San Diego, Catarina Macario is dealing with the hype and dazzling for the USWNT and Lyon. Can she help the USA to their fifth Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games?

By Ken Browne ·

Catarina Macario has the world at her feet.

At 21 she has already made successful debuts for the US Women's National Team and Lyon, arguably the two best teams on the planet right now in international and club football.

Macario scored in only her second appearance for the USA against Colombia on 23 January 2021 and two weeks later was involved in Lyon's match winner minutes after she entered the game against Montpellier, marking her first Lyon appearance with a win.

Wherever she goes, the goals follow.

The girl who grew up playing with the boys in Brazil has a family who believed in her gift and risked it all, her mother staying in Brazil while the rest of the family moved from São Luís, Maranhão to San Diego in California so that she could follow her dream.

That was almost ten years ago when she was 12. Now she's a U.S. citizen fighting to make the toughest roster in the women's game this year:

The 18-player USWNT squad that will travel to Japan for the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer.

Read all about Catarina's incredible journey below, how her dream separated her from her mother, why she chose the USA over Brazil and her exciting move to Lyon.

Catarina Macario: Early years in Brazil

Macario got into the game with her brother Steve, playing in the bairros around Sao Luis on Brazil's northeastern coast.

She was good. Almost always the only girl in the game, she practised hard perfecting her control and sharpening her ball skills, hours and hours spent playing in pick-up matches.

Her first team was Cruzeiro youth which she joined aged five and later when the family moved to the capital Brasilia where her mother, Ana Maria, was completing her residency as a surgeon, a young Catarina joined a Santos affiliate club.

But while Brazil might be a men's global football powerhouse, the women's game suffers from a lack of support.

Catarina knew that at 12 she'd be cut off from playing in boy's academies and with no girl's equivalent her opportunities with be seriously curtailed.

The family decided to make the most difficult decision of their lives:

Dad, Jose, moved to San Diego with Catarina and her brother where the football infrastructure for girls and young women was much better and Catarina would have a fighting chance to develop her talent and fulfill her dreams.

Her mother Ana Maria stayed in Brazil supporting the family financially in the States.

“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 told The Guardian in January 2021.

“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.”

Catarina Macario: From Brazil to the USA

The first years were tough, only Steve could speak English and it was a struggle.

The hardest thing for Catarina was being so far away from mom.

“As a 12-year-old girl, it’s quite hard to be without your mother,” Macario tells Bryan Graham of the Guardian.

“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?”

It was. Catarina brought the joga bonita with her from Brazil and developed into a free flowing No.10 with a killer instinct in front of goal from early on, shining for top youth club San Diego Surf.

She scored a staggering 50 goals in 24 games, breaking every record in the history of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL).

Catarina Macario's favourite player is Mia Hamm

Despite being five years old when Olympic legend and USWNT icon Mia Hamm retired, that's who Macario loved and tried to model her game on as a young girl.

“There’s a thing called YouTube,” said Macario laughing.

She watched highlights and documentaries of Hamm's Olympic and World Cup glories over and over, particularly the 1999 team.

But it was more than just watching the individual brilliance of Hamm, it was the way the team was loved and supported.

“You see the atmosphere they play in,” she said. “The support they get. … The U.S. has a history of supporting women’s soccer.”

Hamm won Olympic gold twice, silver once, and two World Cups. Many say that Macario can lead the next golden generation in a U.S. side bursting with young talent and experienced winners.

Cat's talent brought a lot of attention from the second she stepped on the field and a step up to college level gave her an even bigger platform to dazzle.

Macario unstoppable at Stanford

From early on Macario was the worst-kept secret in women's underage soccer, she was simply different class.

“Catarina is the best goal scoring forward ever to wear a Surf SC uniform,” said San Diego Surf‘s coaching director Colin Chesters.

College scouts were already making the trip to southern California while she was still in middle school and she made the US national team at U14 level.

And if her underage game was explosive, Macario's college career was a fireworks display.

63 goals in 68 games led the Cardinal to two national championships and she won the MAC Hermann trophy, given to the top collegiate player in the country, twice.

Her brother Steve was proud.

"Watching her grow up, playing soccer with boys who didn't necessarily care about who she was as a player, didn't respect her," Cat's brother told ESPN.

"It's definitely very gratifying that she's finally at a place that not only respects it but celebrates it."

The Brazilian national team contacted her a number of times about representing them nationally at underage level, and the rising star had to choose between Brazil and the U.S. internationally but she says that decision was made before she had even left Brazil.

Why did Catarina Macario choose the U.S. over Brazil?

Catarina Macario spent her life chasing dreams then two came true in one week in November 2020:

First, she became a U.S. citizen and then she got her first call-up to the USWNT senior national team under Vlatko Andonovski.

“The U.S. is the land of opportunity. It was just a dream that a little girl had. I don’t have the words to describe how wonderful this moment was. I’m definitely living the American dream.” - Catarina Macario

"Anyone who has seen Catarina play in college can tell that she's a special talent," enthused coach.

"She's incredibly skillful. Scoring many different ways. It's just fun to watch, she's got a flair, she's very creative and she's got the ability that anyone would want."

So why did she choose the U.S. and not the country where she was born?

“I had already made that decision before moving here,” she tells the Guardian.

“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 … 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.”

"She's going to be fire" - Megan Rapinoe

The Cat was let out of the bag against Colombia and Macario scored three minutes into her second cap.

The senior players could already see what she brings in training.

“Cat is a different kind of player than that we’ve ever had,” Megan Rapinoe said.

That's quite a statement from the 35-year-old London 2012 Olympic champ and double World Cup winner who's played alongside the likes of Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Sam Mewis.

“Obviously, she’s creative. She can score goals. Physically, she’s ready to be at this level. She’s quick, she’s fast, she thinks fast. She’s just going to be one of those fun players that you love to see. Someone that’s going to excite the fans. We’re already kind of seeing that in practice.”

"She’s going to be fire. And I think we all can see that." - Megan Rapinoe

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Catarina Macario to Lyon

Soon after scoring her first goal and ticking off another box on the bucket list, Macario was off to Lyon.

When the offer came in from the most successful women's team on the planet with a guarantee of playing time in an Olympic year during the uncertainty of a pandemic, she simply couldn't say no.

Forgoing her final year at Stanford, it was a sense of equality and the women's game being treated right that swayed her decision once more.

Lyon has been setting an example for the women's game ever since Jean-Michel Aulas bought the club in 2004 with a promise of treating the men's and women's game with the same respect.

His investment and belief has led Lyon to where they are now:

Five-time straight Champions League winners and current holders, they haven't lost a French league title in 14, and are aiming for their 9th French Cup in a row this season.

“He’s basically the gamechanger,” says the Lyon forward and Champions League record scorer Ada Hegerberg has said.

“’I’m not talking about him being the gamechanger just for Lyon but for women’s football in general.”

Where Aulas led other women's teams have followed and opportunities are spreading like fire.

"I’m actually investing in seeing myself as an equal to my male counterparts." - Catarina Macario

The best in the world play for Lyon and Macario is well aware of what the club means to the women's game. You'd have to "live under a rock" not to know of OL's reputation in the world she said on signing.

“They have such world-class players and I think playing in that environment every day will really take my game to the next level,” Macario explained.

“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.”

On her debut for Lyon Macario was brought on in minute '37 and almost immediately involved in the winning goal, Lyon downing Montpelier 2-1.

Macario ready to join "badass" US teammates on big issues

Outstanding on the pitch, Macario is outspoken off it, and is ready to stand beside her U.S. teammates who have a strong track record in standing up for gay rights, women's rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and using their platform to try and make the world better.

“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,” Macario continues to the Guardian.

“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.”

The little girl who left Brazil with just a dream is ready to be the difference, on and off the field.

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