Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 18, 2014

Maracana!

The 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament is in progress. All our readers outside of the U.S. know this, but FIFA means Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international organization that stages the quadrennial world championship of “football,” which, here in the States we call “soccer.”

It’s huge. Probably more people around this blue globe of ours care more about the outcome of this single-sport event than those who are devoted to championships in American football, the World Series, the Ashes, the Olympics, the Cricket World Cup, The Grand Slams of tennis and golf and … well, it’s huge. I’ve lost track of the number of young nephews and sons and daughters of friends and associates who’ve flown to Brazil to see this massive event. They’re covering vast swaths of the enormous country, catching terrifying local flights to Natal, Manaus, Recife, Sao Paulo, Rio and places I can’t point to on a map without assistance. Where they find to stay and what they’re eating (and drinking) is beyond my imagination. Have fun, kids. Keep a sharp eye out.

It will culminate in the championship game to be played in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro at one of the world’s most iconic sports venues: Maracanã!

Built for the 1950 World Cup, Estádio do Maracanã (mar-uh-ca-NYA) is a behemoth of a stadium. It was built to hold 200,000 spectators. That is not a typo: two hundred thousand. The official attendance of the final match of the 1950 championship was 199,854, although, unofficially, it’s placed at approximately 210,000. At the time, it was the world’s largest stadium, by capacity. Incredibly, unforgettably, Brazil lost that match to Uruguay, a defeat that resonates to this day, generations later, in the national psyche of the football-mad Brazilian nation and is a high-water mark for the equally football-mad Uruguayans. In Brazil, that catastrophe is named Maracanaço, “The Maracanã Blow.”

How could any stadium hold two hundred thousand people? I know, because I saw it before it was remade to seat 78,000 for this World Cup.

I went to Rio de Janeiro in the late 80’s as one of the producers of an event my employer held there. In those halcyon days, we crew members typically flew in a day early, which gave us one precious day before work began to see the wonderful destinations to which the attendees were being treated, including Acapulco, Hawaii, Rome, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Rome, Nice and Cairo. I didn’t get to all those events, but I was there in Rio de Janeiro with a day — a Sunday — to spend as I wished. I wished to see the legendary Maracanã.

I managed to figure out — despite my nonexistent Portuguese — that futebol was being played at Maracanã that day: a local league  match. The hotel staff helped me figure out how I’d get there from our venue near the beach — south of Copacabana — to the somewhat distant site inland: it required a bus ride. I just kept repeating, “Maracanã,” and was directed to the next bus transfer by kindly people.

I arrived. Above me loomed the massive concrete structure where Pele once scored his thousandth goal! I entered and ambled up the even then crumbling concrete ramp. I walked out onto the top of the field level. There it was: Maracanã!

I’ve walked into a few iconic sports venues in my day: Comiskey Park, Crosley Field, the Horseshoe at Ohio State, the Big House at U. of Michigan, Indianapolis Speedway, the Roman Coliseum, Fenway Park. This was clearly the mother of all sporting venues: a vast concrete ring of incredible scale. At a glance I understood how it could hold 200,000 people: there were no seats. It was built in broad concrete steps on which people would stand, three or four deep on every step.

I don’t know what I paid to enter the stadium (not  much), nor do I know the names of the two local teams playing on the legendary turf that day. I can’t say with any accuracy how many fans were present, although we were a small crowd in contrast to the  capacity of the place. There were at least a few thousand people spectators, gathered in the lower reaches near the pitch, the immense old barn looming over us, echoing and vast.

Echo it did. The fans of the two sides playing that day made a mighty sound. Each side had a huge drumming corps, sustaining an incessant salsa beat: BOOM da-da-DA-da, BOOM da-da-DA-da! Each side had their signature rhythm. Smoke rose up from food being grilled right there in the stands. There were cries of encouragement to the teams and constant chatter in a language I kept feeling that I should understand, but every  time I thought I had a phrase, it would swerve in a direction I couldn’t follow: Portuguese, not Spanish, impenetrable to me.

They belonged there, but I was a curiosity to them: obviously an outsider, not one of the cadre of familiar fans (who knows which side’s fans I’d chosen to sit among?) and just as obviously an American. My skin, my clothes, my way of sitting, my lack of language: everything marked me as an outsider on this typical Sunday of local futebol. What in the heck was I doing there at some Sunday afternoon league game? I explained the best I could with my miserable polyglot mixture of English, Spanish, French and, god help me, probably Latin. One character I’ll never forget was determined to trade me for the ball cap I was wearing, which I’d gotten, I think, in Acapulco. I guess it looked invitingly spiffy (that’s a word in Portuguese). I finally came away with a team cap from his side, although not in nearly as good a shape as the one I traded away. We were both satisfied with the exchange, although I don’t know what became of that memento of mine.

And, yes, there was futebol. Maracanã was built to isolate the players (jogadores) from massive crowds and prevent anyone from the stands rushing the pitch. There was a deep concrete moat, about ten feet wide, between stands and pitch, lined on both sides with wire fencing topped with concertina wire. Out there on that lovely expanse of green grass under a blue sky I saw wonderful, adept players who, in their world, might have been only at some local level, but exceeded in skill anything I’d ever seen, coming as I did from a part of the world that had no futebol. I’d never seen the like. They were gods, and the drums played and the smoke rose up and the fans called to them in a beautiful, exotic language. BOOM da-da-DA-da, BOOM da-da-DA-da! For that one Sunday afternoon, far away from home, I was part of another world from any I’d known before.

I  regret that I don’t have a photo to share with you. Venturing as I was into the unknown real world of Rio, beyond the regular turista beat, I took only my passport and a few reals, but nothing else. Rio is a wonderful and terrible place, and has both some of the most wealthy and most impoverished people on earth, living close to one another. No place on earth is always friendly to outsiders who don’t know their way and can’t speak the language, so I was cautious. Let me say that I encountered  nothing but good will and camaraderie on my trip to Maracanã, and was happy to be there in the heart of the Brazilian game. I hope I can return to Rio some day and see again the unutterably beautiful butterflies with wings the size of dinner plates, iridescent blue, flitting through the rain forest on the mountain slopes overlooking the city and the ocean. Eu vos saúdo, Rio de Janeiro.

Postscript, 2015: Blogger marinafgo posted some photos of the glorious new Maracana following its restoration for the World Cup. CLICK HERE to see them.

© 2014, 2015 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. Your written description of detail on the interior in the Maracana beats anything I have found on the net, so thanks.

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    • Thanks. It’s a VERY different place now, 35 years later. Same size, but they have seats, and I think all the crumbling concrete has been replaced. Of course, some things are diminished; I don’t think they get to haul their grills into the stadium and cook up right there in the stands any more.

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  2. Love your adventurous spirit! I always learn something new when I read your blogs, and love the detailed descriptions! Thanks!

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  3. Brad you’ve been fortunate to visit many interesting places! In this case, do know the origins of the name “FIFA?” Curious why FIFA combined two languages in its title.​

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    • Some errors on my part. The correct name is French, founded in Paris in 1904: Fédération Internationale de Football Association. I failed to insert the accent marks and especially egregious, left off the e at the end of Internationale. Sorry about that. I’ve corrected the article. Thanks for your careful reading.

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