x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Maracana is the heart of Brazilian football

The site of an infamous World Cup loss to Uruguay and the stadium where many luminaries made their names is part of our series on sporting venues.

An aerial view of Maracana stadium, which is scheduled to close for renovation, with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in mind.
An aerial view of Maracana stadium, which is scheduled to close for renovation, with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in mind.

From its opening in 1950, the grand Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho -commonly known as "Maracana" - has always loomed large in the imagination. The greatest football players in the world have plied their trade at this Rio de Janeiro giant, and it has given the sport some of its greatest moments. More than 60 years ago, it was the centre of the football world. As Europe lay exhausted after the Second World War, Brazil, having shaken off dictatorial rule, was selected to host the 1950 World Cup, and plans for a giant stadium were quickly drawn up. More than 10,000 workers were involved in the construction. Only two years later, with the stadium not finished (it would not be completed, officially, until 1965), the World Cup began and the venue, built to hold an astonishing 175,000 people, immediately etched itself into football history. Maracana and the 1950 World Cup opened gloriously for Brazil, as a 21-gun salute and the release of 5,000 pigeons was the prelude to a 4-0 victory by Brazil over Mexico. Brazil continued to dominate the competition, overpowering Sweden and Spain by a combined score of 13-2 at the stadium. Needing only a draw to secure the Cup, Brazil hosted Uruguay in the final at Maracana.

Organisers announced the crowd at 199,854, but some who were there, among them Joao Havelange, the former Fifa president, said as many as 220,000 were there. Brazil, heavily favoured, struck first, but the gritty Uruguayans fought back to tie. Then, at the 79-minute mark, Uruguay's Alcides Ghiggia scored to silence the roar of Maracana and break Brazilian hearts. "Down through its history, only three people have managed to silence Maracana," Ghiggia famously said years later. "The Pope, Frank Sinatra and me." The game is known in Brazil as Maracanazo (the Tragedy of Maracana) and still represents Brazil's greatest football defeat, if not one of its greatest national disappointments. When the final whistle blew, legend holds that two distraught fans leaped from the top of the stadium to their deaths. Maracana, however, quickly came to be a source of national pride for Brazil as generations of the country's best footballers made reputations their inside the massive ring. Pele, the greatest of them all, had more than his share of great moments at the stadium. "As far as the football world is concerned, my career effectively began in this stadium," Pele told Fifa.com this year. "It was there I scored my first international goal, against Argentina at the age of 15 or 16, and also where I scored my 1,000th career goal." The legendary Zico scored a record 333 times at Maracana, and Romario scored (by his count) his 1,000th goal there. Current Brazilian stars such as Kaka, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Luis Fabiano have all had their time to shine on the stadium's famous pitch. Aside from being the home field for Brazilian teams Flamengo (the nation's most popular team) and Fluminense and host to the Copa do Brasil and Campeonato Carioca tournament games, Maracana has also hosted a wide array of non-sporting events. Pope John Paul II twice filled the stadium. Maracana has also been the site for concerts by Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Madonna and, yes, Sinatra. In the six decades since the 1950 World Cup, Maracana has been renovated several times; one retrofit came after a collapse of a portion of the upper stands which left three dead and 50 injured. With each renovation seating for the stadium has been reduced, and capacity is now down to 82,238 - which still makes it the largest stadium in South America.

Maracana will soon close for at least two years as an overhaul, estimated to cost US$390 million (Dh1.43 billion), is made with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in mind. More great moments on tap, then. Among the changes will be an extension of the roof of the open-air stadium, which will offer coverage for all seats during the scorching Rio de Janeiro summer. Capacity is planned to be increased to 90,000. Despite worries over time and money - the date for the closing of the stadium has recently been pushed back to December - Brazilian officials are confident Maracana will be ready by 2013, when it is scheduled to host games for the Confederations Cup. "Construction depends on the influx of money," Hudson Braga, the construction secretary for Rio de Janeiro state, recently told the Brazilian newspaper Jornal do Brasil. "With money, the project will be finished on time." Fifa has thus far stood behind Brazil as the nation frantically works to get ready for 2014. As for Maracana, football's leading organisation could not praise it highly enough. "Maracana is a cathedral. The temple of football. It is a place to even hold mass," Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. Regardless of its changing interior and exterior, Maracana remains the heart of Brazilian football, despite the heart-wrenching opening that is known to nearly every football fan. "Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima," wrote the renown Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues. "Our catastrophe ? was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950." sports@thenational.ae Go to www.thenational.ae/stadiums for full coverage of our greatest sporting venues so far

1. Alcides Ghiggia scores in the 79th minute as Uruguay shock Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final 2-1 before a record crowd of nearly 200,000. 2. Pele records his 1,000th career goal against Vasco da Gama in 1969 while playing for Santos. The resulting pitch invasion ends the match in the 34th minute. 3. England's John Barnes scored a wonder goal in 1984 which defined his career and inflicted Brazil's first defeat at the venue since the 1960s.