Sports

How Ary Borges returned to Racing Louisville a Women’s World Cup hero with Brazil

SYDNEY — The noise of celebrations could be heard from within the confines of Racing Louisville’s training ground on July 24. As Ary Borges netted three goals for Brazil against Panama at the Women’s World Cup, her club teammates celebrated each as if they had scored them themselves.

“I was watching the game from my office and that’s close to the girls’ locker room, and they were just screaming as they watched the game together,” Racing head coach Kim Bjorkegren tells ESPN. “And I was so happy for her. Her teammates also think that she’s so talented.”

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At this point, Bjorkegren breaks out laughing. “But also, they’re like, ah come on, Ari! You need to stop! This is too much!”

The starting midfield three for Racing have their own WhatsApp group. It’s an elite group, too: Brazil midfielder Borges, USWNT midfielder Savannah DeMelo and U.S.-capped club captain Jaelin Howell. “We were texting on the group chat after she scored her three goals,” Howell tells ESPN. “And there’s always banter and stuff, but I just said, ‘congrats.’ It was just unreal seeing her live out her dream. And all she said later was ‘I’m still in disbelief.’ She’s just so humble.”

Nine days on, when Borges’ Brazil were knocked out, they saw their teammate in tears again. They watched her cry tears of joy when she scored her opener against Panama, and saw them flow again when Brazil suffered their surprise exit against Jamaica. Her friends were disappointed at how Borges’ World Cup journey came to an end, but upon return to the U.S. it was right back to business. The NWSL returned with a home match against Angel City on Aug. 19 — Borges played the full 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw — her teammates are not only delighted to have her back. They’re also fully aware the world now knows who she is.

“I was watching it thinking, is she doing too good?” Bjorkegren says, laughing. “I mean, it’s like, you need to stop! We want to keep you here in Louisville!”

Borges’ breakout hat trick was one of the moments of the World Cup. She made history in the process, too, becoming the first Brazilian player — male or female — to score a hat trick on their World Cup debut, etching a page of Selecao history that neither Pele or Marta achieved. But for those who have monitored the 23-year-old’s journey, it comes as no surprise. Racing signed her in December 2022, having followed her progress for a while. The recruitment at Racing combines talent seen with the human eye — both from Bjorkegren, contacts and their own recruitment team — along with their stats database.

“I don’t remember who was the one that saw her first, but I watched a lot of the Brazilian league,” Bjorkegren says. “I think similar to how men’s football was like, I don’t know, 20, 30 years ago in Brazil, as you could find players that people don’t know that much about. It’s a little bit similar right now in Brazil that you can find good players, for less money.”

Borges had already left a lasting legacy in Brazilian domestic football. She grew up playing for Santos’ youth side, competing alongside boys, and then moved to Centro Olimpico — playing in an age group four years older than her — before getting picked up by Sport Recife in 2017. She had a year with Sao Paulo in 2019 where she was quickly established as a fan favourite, but Palmeiras snapped her up in 2020.

She scored Palmeiras’ opening goal in their Copa Libertadores Femenina final against Boca Juniors on Oct. 29, 2022, and helped them to their 4-1 victory. She was also part of the Brazil side that won the Copa América Femenina in July 2022, scoring their opener in the semifinal win over Paraguay, then playing a key role as they defeated Colombia 1-0 in the final.

All the while, Bjorkegren and Louisville were watching.

“I liked her first touch, and that she had moved the ball with both feet,” Bjorkegren says. “She could change play easily in both directions, meaning she had almost everything that I’m looking for. And then when we looked at the stats, in every game, she’s the one that ran most.”

Bjorkegren picked the brains of the Swedish coaches he knew in the Brazilian league. Brazil also played Sweden and Norway in friendly matches. “I had some eyes from other coaches and I think it was a total of four other coaches that gave me good feedback as well. I know one Brazilian player she played with well. So of course I asked her about her personality, and she only had the good things to say about her that she’s like always passionate for her game and hard-working.”

At the time of announcing the signing, Racing described her as a “box-to-box midfielder,” but also highlighted her versatility, with her ability to play on both flanks and up front. “She’s really good with her timing,” Bjorkegren adds. “I think she can play as a six, as an eight, as a 10 — she’s an all-rounder.”

Borges arrived at her new home in late-January. Her new teammates didn’t have to wait long to see her remarkable skillset as she scored an outrageous goal in her first training session. “She scored a banger of a bicycle kick, and we said, ‘Oh, the Brazilian is in the building,'” Racing teammate Jess McDonald said.

Howell remembers her first impressions of Borges. “She was obviously a bit quiet, and didn’t know much English so my first impressions were solely on the way she played, and you could see immediately how smart and creative she was.”

Bjorkegren adds: “Maybe I was sitting with her a little bit more in the start, just to watch videos and try to explain to her things but she learnt really fast.”

But it was her debut which surprised Bjorkegren the most. “I remember that first game she really played for us, and I remember thinking she was working so hard for us,” she added. “I saw it with my own eyes, but then I saw the GPS numbers, and I was like, “Oh s—!” She had the highest number in the whole squad.”

In her second match for Racing against Washington Spirit she scored her first goal, a wonderful half-volley from the left side of the area, looping past the keeper into the top right corner. There were also the qualities which can’t be picked up by GPS. “It’s just her incredible ability to understand scenarios and her IQ in the moments,” Beverly Yanez, Racing’s assistant coach says. Yanez adds Borges’ qualities include “her smoothness, her flair, her ability to be good in the air, her ability to see different passes or ability to get shots on goal.”

“She has a Brazilian flair, but she also can keep it really simple in the way she can connect passes and get us from one line to the next,” Howell adds.

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How ‘outstanding’ Ary Borges helped Brazil ease past Panama

Natalie Gedra recaps Brazil’s 4-0 win over Panama and praises Ary Borges after her hat trick performance.

And then came that night on July 24 where Borges put in a near-perfect performance against Panama in their 4-0 win. She scored her first after 18 minutes, as she planted a far post header into the bottom corner. As she ran away to celebrate, she was overcome with emotion.

“When I scored the first goal, I remembered my journey to get there at that moment,” Borges said after the match. “I couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams.”

“When we saw Ari get emotional, like that, it made all of us emotional.” Howell says. “Just because we see the work that she does day in and day out.”

But there were two more to come. Her second saw her tap home a rebound off her own header, and then headed home a third as she broke Panama’s offside trap. “Everybody went nuts in the training ground, It was just unreal,” Howell says.

Borges then rounded it all off with the assist for Brazil’s other goal, their third. It was a beautifully crafted effort as they pulled Panama out of position, with Borges back-heeling it to Bia Zaneratto, who finished neatly in the top of Panama’s net.

“That really showed her vision and selflessness,” Howell says. In the 75th minute she was substituted, replaced by their greatest-ever player, Marta. “I’m very happy for her,” Marta said. “Scoring three goals in a debut is not easy, she was blessed. She even gave an assist, so it’s almost four goals. I was honoured to step into her shoes.”

Borges was of course named Player of the Match for that performance. “The day was full of emotions,” Borges said. “I think I had all the highs and lows that a human being can have. I was very happy. I was very nervous. I cried. I smiled. If anybody told me beforehand that I was going to score three goals on my debut I would have laughed in their faces. It’s a special day, but this is just the beginning of a long walk that we have ahead of us.”

That walk came to a premature end just two matches later, when they fell to France 2-1 and then drew 0-0 with Jamaica.

So it was back to her home in Louisville, and managing the heartbreak by refocusing on domestic duties. Bjorkegren is looking forward to getting his midfield unit back together again. “I think it’s the most talented midfield in the world, I would say,” he added. “We have my captain Jaeden Howell, Borges as an eight and then DeMelo as a 10. The average age is like 23 or 24 years old. It’s really fun to work with them and they’re taking steps forward all the time. They’re world-class players.”

Howell adds: “We’ve gotten pretty close off the field too, but I think it’s partly due to the fact that we know that we have something special and we’re really excited about it. As a midfield, we’re trying to be one of the best in the world and I think with the talent that we have, we can do that.

“Before she left we were joking and I was like, ‘your English is so good, don’t you go forgetting it when you go to the World Cup!’ And then a couple of weeks into the Word Cup, she made a joke to Sav, obviously in English, on text, and it was super funny and it just surprised me! She hadn’t lost touch with her English at all, she was keeping that going too.”

Louisville had six players at the World Cup. Alex Chidiac‘s with Australia on their incredible run to the semifinals. Uchenna Kanu had a brilliant World Cup with Nigeria up front, Wang Shuang played well for China, DeMelo was prominent for the United States, while Thembi Kgatlana lit up the competition for South Africa. And then there’s Borges.

“You’ll hear me say over and over again just how special Ari is, and her ability to create on the ball,” Howell says. “She’s such a smart player, that’s why she’s so fun to play with.”

Over the next few weeks they’ll get the band back together, and Borges will be part of that formidable midfield trio after a World Cup which finished in disappointment, but with her own slice of Brazilian history.

“She’s so hardworking,” Bjorkegren says. “I don’t see what can stop her. She’s a really big talent, and she’s improving all the time. She’s so hardworking, and you can see that with how she’s improved and doing better and better in defence. She’s also great in the air. In my mind, she’s going to be one of the best players in the world.”

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