Brazilian goalkeeper Maravilha has her finger close to the button that controls her team's emotional pitch, and she can push it simply by making a big play.
"I think that whenever you make a great save, it gives a morale boost to the whole team," she said. "The goalie is the only player who can't lose her concentration."
Maravilha will be expected to push that button often on Sunday, when Brazil meets the United States in a Women's World Cup semifinal in Palo Alto, Calif. One of her most important tasks will be to keep Brazil focused: In their past two matches, the Brazilians have suffered second-half slumps that allowed opponents to mount comebacks. "Anything could happen in a game," she said. "Even though we suffer a goal, we still have to be able to react."
Compared with her better-known teammates Sissi and Pretinha -- each of whom has at least eight years of national team experience -- Maravilha is a relative newcomer. She made her first appearance for Brazil during an exhibition match in November 1995. Since then she has been groomed as successor to longtime national team goalkeeper Meg, who played in the 1995 Women's World Cup and the 1996 Olympics before retiring.
Following Brazilian soccer custom, the players use unusual nicknames in place of their full names. (Maravilha's real name is Marlisa Wahlbrink.) Maravilha (pronounced mah-rah-VEELyah) means "Marvel" in Portuguese, and while her play could sometimes be described as "marvelous," the nickname has other origins.
The 26-year-old was born in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. As a child, her family moved to a small rural town called Maravilha. The nickname was bestowed years later when she moved to Sao Paulo to play professional soccer and her club teammates learned the name of her home town. Maravilha plays professionally for Sao Paulo Soccer Club, one of the most successful franchises in Brazilian women's soccer. Although her name is not likely to appear on the World Cup all-star roster, Maravilha has proved herself capable of keeping Brazil in a match when the gears of its powerful offense fail to click.
She made a punch save on a penalty kick awarded to Italy, after a tripping foul by Brazilian fullback Elane. Brazil won that first-round match, 2-0, guaranteeing itself a place in the quarterfinals. To effectively challenge the heavily favored Americans on Sunday, Brazil will need a similarly inspiring performance to control the athletic and opportunistic American attack.
"We know that it will be a difficult game," said Brazilian Coach Wilson Oliveira Rica. "The U.S. team doesn't have any weaknesses."
Barring brilliance on its back line, Brazil will need another miracle to stay in the game. But Brazil is no stranger to miracles in this World Cup. Against Germany in the first round last Sunday, Brazil salvaged a 3-3 tie on the game's last play -- a goal scored by forward Maicon in the 94th minute after a free kick by Brazilian midfielder Sissi.
And against Nigeria in the quarterfinal Thursday night, Brazil blew a 3-0 halftime lead, allowing Nigeria to score three goals in a 23-minute span to tie the game and force overtime.
In that match, as against Germany, the Brazilians looked tired and out of sync during the second half. But right before the start of overtime against Nigeria, the Brazilian players met at midfield and it wasn't simply a strategy session. "We asked everyone to stay clam, take a deep breath, and give the last drop that was inside for the sake of the team," said defender Nene.
Brazil won in overtime by scoring the first "golden goal" in Women's World Cup history. Sissi vaulted a free kick over the Nigerian wall and past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Judith Chime. It was Sissi's tournament-leading seventh goal.
After defeating Nigeria, the players brimmed with pride at their progress. By making the semifinals, Brazil has vastly improved on its ninth-place finishes in the 1991 and 1995 Women's World Cups.
"We have suffered a lot to get here," Maravilha said, "and we needed results like these for women's soccer in Brazil to reach the next level."
CAPTION: "I think that whenever you make a great save, it gives a moral boost to the whole team," Maravilha said. Brazil meets high-powered U.S. on Sunday.