The Brazil Series, a collection of articles inspired by the world’s greatest footballing cradle, Póg Mo Goal looks at the storied past of the iconic ground that holds a special place in the heart of all Brazilians. It’s ironic that the reopening of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium with Brazil vs England was overshadowed by accusations that the venue wasn’t ready. It’s merely a case of history repeating itself.
After three years of refurbishment at a cost of over a billion Reais (close to €400 million), the controversy ahead of the England game was somewhat of an embarrassment for Brazil. Essentially down to an administrative error – the failure to provide a safety report in time – the ordeal did nothing to assuage opinions that the country wouldn’t be ready for the World Cup.
The Maracana itself was due to be finished at the end of 2012 having endured worker strikes and reported problems with the venue’s roof. It’s reopening was twice postponed. Areas around the perimeter still looked like a construction site despite a sell-out crowd for the visit of England but that’s nothing new for the ground at the epicentre of Brazilian football.
Originally built for the 1950 World Cup, the stadium was still unfinished when the competition began. Just as the modern version opened with an exhibition game, between Friends of Ronaldo and Bebeto, the very first match took place on June 16, 1950, when Rio de Janeiro All-Stars beat São Paulo All-Stars 3–1.
The toilet facilities had not been completed, there was no press stand and it still looked like a building site. A week later Brazil played their first game of the World Cup there beating Mexico 4-0.
Five of the host’s matches at the tournament were played at the Maracana, including the final where they were defeated 2-1 by Uruguay in front of an official attendance of 174,000. The actual figure was said to be well over 200,000 and at the time, the Maracana was the biggest stadium in the world, surpassing Hampden Park in Glasgow.
With the latter stages of the tournament played on a group basis, the Selecáo only required a draw in the final to become World Champions on home soil. Brazil took the lead through Friaca but Uruguay came storming back. Juan Schiaffino equalised before Alcides Ghiggia scored with just 11 minutes to go to stun the home crowd and clinch the trophy The game would come to be known in Brazilian footballing folklore as the Maracanazo – the Maracana blow.
Decades later Ghiggia remarked:
“Only three people in history have managed to silence the Maracana, the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.”
In 2009, Brazil paid tribute to Ghiggia for his role in the game by having his footprints cast in a special pavement at the stadium.
With the 2014 tournament returning to the country, memories of the 1950 heartbreak are sure to resurface. However, back in 1989 a goal by Romario was enough to beat Uruguay in the final of that year’s Copa America on the same ground to go some way to ease the pain.
The Maracana regularly plays hosts to Rio de Janeiro’s top sides; Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco. It’s most often associated with Flamengo and even President Dilma Rousseff joined in the chant of “Mengo, Mengo” at the stadium’s unofficial opening with the Ronaldo and Bebeto exhibition game, which also featured some of the construction workers who helped to build it.
In 1964 it was officially renamed the Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho in honour of the journalist who had advocated its construction, but it has retained the nickname, the Maracana.
In 1969, Pelé scored the 1,000th goal of his career against Vasco in front of an estimated crowd of 125,000 spectators. In 1989, Zico scored his final goal for Flamengo to take his haul at the Rio mecca to an astonishing 333.
In 1983, following the death of the legendary international, Garrincha’s remains were brought to the stadium where thousands of fans gathered to bid a final farewell.
Nine years later, on July 19th, tragedy struck at the stadium when an upper stand collapsed killing three supporters. This led to a significant reduction in the capacity and it was converted to an all-seater venue in the late 1990s.
Refurbished for the 2007 Pan-American Games, the Maracana’s latest redevelopment has not met with universal approval with resident Cariocas. There have been large scale public protests in Rio against the destruction of parts of the city for the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games. Many Brazilians feel the short duration of the events doesn’t equate with the upheaval taking place in their cities.
Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the world but, as the demonstrations have shown, tens of thousands of the country’s inhabitants feel the World Cup has come too soon, that the expense is too great in a country where the gap between rich and poor is chasmic.
There have been other, lesser known victims of the ‘progress’.
Beside the sprawling Maracana complex, there stood a native Indian museum earmarked for demolition which sparked angry protests from citizens. Although dilapidated, the museum had become a focal point for squatters, adorned with a banner reading: ’20 Days of the Cup against 150 years of indigenous tradition. No to the demolition of the museum. We will resist until death.’
Even the name of the stadium comes from the Rio Maracana (Maracana River) derived from an old indigenous word for a native bird of the region.
There have been the much publicised troubles with completing the stadia in Brazil. During the early days of construction, the legendary Romario remarked:
“The gospels say Jesus will return. Only he can ensure Brazil stage the best cup. If he comes down in the next three years, then it will be possible.”
Now a congressman, the former striker has been outspoken in his criticism of FIFA’s demands for the tournament.
“Brazil needs to stop this business of becoming a slave of FIFA…The sovereignty of the country must be respected.”
The Brazil 2014 organising authorities were under massive pressure to deliver facilities in time for the tournament. The initial cancellation of the Brazil-England game to reopen the show-piece Maracana greatly embarrassed the hosts and there were huge worries with stadia in Curitiba and Sao Paolo, with reports of unfinished work a matter of days before the competition began.
It seems with every major sporting event these days, there are concerns with the venues and Brazil would be loathe to become the first nation to fail so visibly. On the field of play, however, if Neymar and his team-mates can go one better at the Maracana than their compatriots in 1950, this controversy will merely be another chapter in the history of the fabled ground.