Sep 12, 2012

Ranking the World's Soccer Meccas: No. 2 Estadio do Maracana

For ranking methodology and other information about the series, see the original post. To read the about the No. 3-rated stadiums, Old Trafford and Anfield Road. To see all "soccer mecca" entries click here.

No. 2 Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho (Estádio do Maracanã), Rio de Janeiro
Open Since: 1950
Capacity: Originally said to be 200,000. After renovation for 2014 World Cup this number will be about 85,000
Current Tenant: None. Will be Brazilian national team after renovation.
Past Tenants: "Big Four" Rio de Janeiro clubs (Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense, Vasco da Gama), Brazilian cup finals, Rio de Janeiro state championships.
World Cup hosts: 1950, 2014

The Maracana is one of only two stadiums on this list that I have visited in person (the other is the No. 1 ground, whose identity you should be able to figure out at this point if you were paying attention). I was in Rio very recently and took the opportunity to visit the site. Construction site, in this instance. The Maracana is in the middle of a major renovation, its second in a decade, and you can barely get anywhere near it as a result. When I visited, in the middle of August (all photos are from that trip), it was pretty much at the exact midpoint of this overhaul, allowing neither a true sense of what it used to be like, nor a glimpse of what form it would take after the facelift. Even FourFourTwo magazine called it "underwhelming."

They do have a little museum where for 10 reais (about US$5) they show you, well, very little: The "footprints" of a few players, the odd photo and a very obstructed view of the construction going on in the interior. Still, it's the Maracana, a required stop for every soccer fan who ever passes through Rio. The once and future home of the Selecao! The host of one of the most historic World Cup games of all time! As the signature ground of the first postwar World Cup tournament, the Maracana can make a claim to putting the modern game on the map. "What Catholics feel at the Holy Sepulcher, Elvis fans at Graceland and Communists at Lenin's Tomb, soccer fans feel upon sight of Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium," wrote an Israeli journalist. Not visiting was not an option.

Besides, the place has spent large portions of its existence in various states of disrepair. Initial construction wasn't even completed until 1965, according to this BBC story, its sprinkler system had to be overhauled in the 90s and it underwent some pretty extensive renovations last decade. Construction is very much its natural state.

The stadium is in a rather nondescript middle class neighborhood west of downtown. It kind of sneaks up on you as you approach from one of the elevated highways (sadly, that was the best view I got and I didn't act quickly enough to photograph it. But this New York Times story gives you a better perspective anyway). The initial impression is of a massive UFO that decided to park in the middle of the city. It is immense, but not particularly tall, or maybe that's just because I'm used to monstrosities like Met Life Stadium and Citi Field. By 1950 standards it was certainly unrivaled on a global scale. Even in the U.S., serious stadium construction didn't start for another decade or so.

The architecture appears to be of the art deco variety. I say "appears to be" because 1) I couldn't really tell for all the aforementioned reasons, 2) I don't know how to define art deco in the first place and 3) I don't actually know a thing about architecture. It's decidedly modern, how about that? Except wait, that would mean it isn't art deco, right? Whatever. Hopefully none of you are reading this expecting a discourse on architecture.

The Maracana was built for the 1950 World Cup. It was a massive project. The Elon International Studies puts it in perspective:
Building the stadium was one of the biggest human works projects in the history of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Over 11,000 laborers worked on the completion of the stadium with an average of 3,500 men working per day over three shifts. The completion of the stadium took over 8 million man hours of work. To put this in perspective, it would take one man working 6 hours per day 1,860 years to build the stadium. If any man were capable of completing this feat, he would have to have hauled 500,000 bags of cement, 10 tons of iron, 80,000 cubic meters of concrete, 650,000 square meters of timber and 134 million cubic meters of earth into the stadium to complete the task.
(Whoever wrote that piece did not supply a source for those numbers, so take them with a grain of salt if you like.) It was the final game of that tournament that turned the Maracana into such a contentious spot for Brazilian soccer fans. That match, a 2-1 loss to Uruguay, surely remains the most painful event in the history of Brazilian sport. Readers of this blog surely know the story: needing just a draw to win their first World Cup title, the heavily favored Brazilian side took a 1-0 lead shortly after halftime, only to see Uruguay come back with two late goals that shocked the 200,000 in attendance and caused an outpouring of grief and mourning -- and three deaths by heart attack, according to various reports, including this one by Contisoccerworld. Brazilian author Nelson Rodriguez called it "our Hiroshima," presumably without a hint of irony. The event even resulted in the coining of a phrase, Maracanazo. It prompted the selecao to abandon their white kits and switch to the yellow/green/blue familiar to modern fans of the game. None of Brazil's five splendid World Cups since then have completely vanquished the trauma. That will only happen if Brazil win the final of the 2014 World Cup, which will be held at the Maracana. The Brazilians I spoke to were not very keen on that idea at all. It was almost as if the iconic ground still held too many ghosts from 1950, which are better left undisturbed lest they traumatize an entirely new generation of Brazilians.

Of course, there were other famous events that took place at the Maracana, with more favorable outcomes to the Brazilian sides that called it home. Pele's Santos club was not actually one of them, as Santos hails from Sao Paulo, which is different from Rio de Janeiro. The record for most goals scored at Maracana is held by one Zico, who played his club soccer at Rio de Janeiro side Flamengo and scored 333 goals at the storied ground, according to various reports. But Pele still celebrated several milestones including what we are told is his 1,000th goal (links to YouTube video) and his final match for the Brazilian national team. In the final of the 1961 Rio-Sao Paulo championship, Pele scored what came to be known as the gol de placa (worthy of a plaque). describes the goal, and the events surrounding it, in great detail. If you're scoring at home, that's two (2) terms that the Maracana has invented for the Portuguese language.

Soccer nations other than Brazil (and Uruguay) have made their mark on the Maracana. In 1984, England became the first team to defeat Brazil in Rio since 1968. John Barnes scored what the Telegraph has called one of the most memorable goals of all time (presumably from an English perspective).

Amazingly, the Maracana hosted only one Copa Libertadores final, and that was in 2008. It was not a pleasant experience for the home side, in this case Fluminense, who lost on penalties to LDU Quito of Ecuador, a game I watched on tv and reported on in this space (and sadly to say, have absolutely no recollection of).

Besides the 200,000 for the final game of the 1950 World Cup (a world record), the best-attended club soccer game was played here as well. That was the 194,603 for a Flamengo v. Fluminense derby match in 1963. Until and unless standing room terraces are reinstated at a future stadium somewhere, those records will probably stand the test of time.

It will be interesting to see what the Maracana looks like when it finally emerges from its latest, greatest renovation. What will be more interesting will be the new history that is written on the pitch; besides the 2014 final, the stadium will also host four group stage matches, a round of 16 game and quarterfinal. Will Brazil emerge victorious, with the ghosts of 1950 finally put to rest? Or will it usher in a new period of mourning. Either way, the Maracana figures to play a prominent role.

1 comment:

  1. I think it would be nice to watch a game from this stadium after the renovations are done. It was a good call from the management to reduce the number of audience from 200,000 to 85,000 to at least preserve this 1950 stadium which has already stood the test of time.