The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games occurred earlier today in Rio De Janeiro in the legendary Estádio do Maracanã (mar-uh-ca-NYA), Maracanã Stadium. Because I like to recall the memorable day I was in the stadium, I’m reprising a post I wrote two years ago, when Brazil hosted the World Cup of football (soccer, here in the U.S.).
I went to Rio de Janeiro in the late 80’s as one of the producers of a multi-day corporate event. 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.
The stadium of that day was nothing like the gleaming, modern facility you’ll see on television if you watch any coverage of the Olympics. Built for the 1950 World Cup, Maracanã was a behemoth of a stadium. It was designed 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.”
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 north and 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 seating. There it was: Maracanã!
I’ve walked into a few iconic sports venues in my day: Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, the Rose Bowl (where I watched the U.S. lose a World Cup match in 1994), 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 (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, 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 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 modest level of accomplishment, 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.
© Brad Nixon 2014, 2016