Sara Gama and Rafaelle Souza come from very different backgrounds, having grown up on different continents thousands of miles away.
But both fell in love with football from an early age and their shared passion has taken them on unexpected journeys to the pinnacle of women’s football.
Gama, 33, captain of Italy and Juventus, and Souza, 31, defender of Brazil and Arsenal, tell BBC World Service’s The Conversation on their early career, the shock of getting paid to play and being an inspiration to the next generation.
“I didn’t even know there was a national team”
Gama and Souza started playing football with boys on the streets where they lived.
“I started playing around seven years old but I always played with the boys, barefoot in my small town in Brazil,” says Souza.
“At that time, I couldn’t watch women’s football on TV, so I didn’t know I could be a professional player because I had never watched it.”
Gama, 33, was also playing with boys when she joined her first official team at the age of seven, before joining a women’s team at 12.
For both, it was a surprise to be called up by their national youth teams.
“When I was 15, I was playing with my city’s men’s team, with adults, and I wasn’t used to playing with people my age,” Souza explains. “When I got the call, I was in shock.”
Gama adds: “When I got the call, I didn’t even know there was a national team because I didn’t even see any women playing. I’m still here, the national team is part of it. of my life.”
If it was a shock, finding out that she could be paid to play football by a club in Italy was even more so.
“It was amazing. When I had the meeting with the president [of the football club], they said we were going to give you 100 €. ‘Are you going to pay me to play?!’ I was very surprised. At my old club, we paid to play.
“It was a dream. It wasn’t huge what they paid me but, for me, it was huge.”
On strike for women’s rights
It was a move abroad that opened the pair’s eyes to the potential of women’s football.
Gama arrived in 2013, when she moved to Paris St-Germain – an “opportunity to experience real professional football full-time”.
The club’s new owners have invested heavily in the women’s team as they look to challenge their compatriots and European heavyweights, Lyon.
“I started training during the day,” says Gama. “It was quite interesting for me to see a country quite similar to Italy and to see how football could develop with the right investment and attention.
“And I started to see a vision of women’s football in other countries that were in some cases ahead of us.”
When she returned to Italy to play for Brescia in 2015, Gama helped start a revolution that would change the women’s game in her country.
During a match for Brescia against Verona, she gathered with her teammates, holding a banner for equality saying ‘some points are worth more than in the table’. When the Italian Football Association failed to respond to their calls for greater professionalism, they threatened to strike ahead of the first game of the season.
“It was a huge turning point for us,” she says. “As players we understood that being united was a very important thing and that by sticking together we could move our movement forward.”
Meanwhile, Souza became the first foreign woman to sign for a club in China when she joined Changchun Zhuoyue in 2016.
The opportunity came after studying civil engineering in the United States on a soccer scholarship and playing a season for Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“I was about to quit playing football. I was going to become an engineer because I could make more money than playing football in Brazil.
“Then I received a very good offer to play in China. I decided that if I had to stay away from my family, it was better to stay away and earn some money to give them some support.”
“When I arrived there, the culture was really different from anything I had known in my life… I had a translator in China who was like my shadow, he accompanied me everywhere and he became a friend very close because we spent six years side by side.”
To be an inspiration to young girls
In 2018, for International Women’s Day, toy company Mattel introduced the Sara Gama Barbie doll as part of the Sheroes line.
“As you can imagine, when I was a kid, I played more with soccer balls than Barbies,” Gama says. “So I didn’t understand at the time what that could mean. But then they explained to me that the message of the campaign was not just to become a Barbie – it was that every girl can become what she wants.”
And Souza, although she doesn’t like the limelight, says she is proud to be an inspiration in her hometown of Cipo, in northeast Brazil.
“I’m the [type of] person who doesn’t like to be seen,” she said.
“People talk about me like I’m one of the best players but I don’t see it. I feel like I’m still the same kid I was playing barefoot with back then.”
But she is happy to represent her community and give hope to others. “I come from here so [perhaps] other kids might see me and think ‘if she could make it, maybe I’d have a chance’, and try to keep their dreams alive.”