As the FIFA World Cup heads to Brazil, its worth remembering that not everyone gets applauded for playing the game in a country where it was once illegal for women to kick a football, says Jo Griffin.Brazil, the land of football, is no country for women players. It’s hard to believe but many women still face a fight to play the game let alone enjoy the rewards reaped by the men. So routine has been the mockery and marginalisation of female footballers that visiting fans might be forgiven for overlooking them entirely. But not during a World Cup that’s putting Brazilian society under intense scrutiny.

Yesterday, FIFA’s five-times woman player of the year, Brazilian Marta Vieira da Silva, opened the Football for Equality Plaza in Rio de Janeiro, a space dedicated to providing an insight into how football can spur emancipation and social change, for the duration of the World Cup.

The focal point is the exhibition Women on The Pitch, which details 100 years of women’s football in Brazil, “a century-long struggle for acceptance and respect on and off the pitch”, said organiser Niko Wieland.“Marta”, known in Brazil as “Pele in a skirt”, herself left Brazil for Sweden because opportunities lacked at home. Other top players have joined the Guerreiras Project started by US ex-professional footballer Caitlin Fisher to use football to promote gender equality in Brazil where media stereotypes, lack of financial resources and other challenges have held back the sport. Things have changed very slowly since a ban on women’s football was lifted at the end of the military dictatorship in 1979.

Why does all this matter? Because the World Cup offers a chance to highlight not just the fight for equality in women’s football in Brazil but how the game can transform attitudes and life opportunities for girls and women who face deep discrimination and social exclusion. I’ve seen this for myself.

In the favela complex of Penha, a long way from the Football for Equality Plaza, the Favela St project recruits ex-drug traffickers as football coaches to help keep young people out of the drugs trade and create role models. When I visited Penha last year, its founder Philip Veldhuis told me: “The kids here have a choice: join the drug traffickers or play football with us.”

Some girls were initially shy to join the training sessions, he said, because they feared being ridiculed. Favela St currently trains around 1,000 children and young people, including 80 girls.

A year later, I watched a team of teenage girls from Favela St celebrate their victory over girls’ teams from nine other countries, including England, in the girls’ tournament of the Street Child World Cup in Rio. Now they hope to become positive role models in one of Rio’s toughest communities, encouraging other girls to sign up to a programme that boosts confidence and self-esteem, empowering young people in poor areas where educational provision is scant, violence is rife, and teen motherhood is common.

These girls achieved success against very high odds, but they can’t overcome prejudice alone. “No one knows about us, or that we won the SCWC, or even that we played. People don’t pay attention to female football,” one of the players, Drykha, said last week. “If the boys’ team had won, they would have more prestige. The minister of sport would be applauding.

"More attention should be paid by Brazil’s leaders to help female football grow further, because there is so much talent here and so many [women] who could be playing for the country but aren’t given the opportunity.”

So, if you are going to Rio for the World Cup, why not head for the Football for Equality Plaza and find out why Brazil should change the game?