“O Maraca e o nosso, aha uhu [The Maracana is ours, aha uhu]”.
In Rio, fans often chant these few words with guttural intensity, pumping their fists into the air, as they disembark at the stadium’s metro station and walk down the big approach ramp. Then the Maracana, a vast, low-lying spaceship in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, comes into sight.
For fans from the city’s big four clubs, Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama, the chant is to express a yearning for victory and lay claims on the stadium, as a singular space for football fandom. They wholeheartedly embrace the Maracana.
On Friday night, none of these fans will be at the Maracana – disaffected at the bequest of a sporting elite. But schmoozing politicians – including interim president Michel Temer, prawn-and-sandwich-gorging VIPs, corporate guests, the fourth estate, and affluent fans will enjoy a gala night, awash with Brazilian pride, culminating in the Greek delegation walking into the stadium and the lighting of the Olympic flame, a universal symbol of human unity and inclusion. Ironically, the Maracana was conceived to represent just that.
Back in 1919, Brazil hosted their first sporting mega event, the South American football championship, the precursor to today’s Copa America. At the Estadio das Laranjeiras, a picturesque neocolonial-style stadium in downtown Rio de Janeiro, the hosts proved too strong for neighbours Uruguay. For the first time, Brazilian national identity crystallised around a stadium.
Watching the story unfold
Stadiums adopted European social principles, embodying modernity in construction and carrying messages of leisure, bodily discipline and social inclusion. In the 1930s, Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, influenced by Mussolini’s corporatism, quickly understood the centrality of sports and stadiums to the Brazilian national identity. He used football as a powerful tool to consolidate it and insert his own political agenda.
Football victories became of end-all importance. They were glorifying moments for Brazil, a society with a low self-esteem and dubbed “the world champions of inequality” by historian Eric Hobsbawm. Football and the Seleção Brasileira were transformed into a metaphor for the nation, tasked to show the supposed grandeur of Brazil to the world.
The Maracana, constructed for the 1950 World Cup, was another metaphor. The new cathedral of Brazilian football was an advert for Brazil’s industriousness: grand engineering feats, ingenious architecture and productive labour, all to be feted with the hosts lifting the Jules Rimet trophy. Uruguay did prevent the final step, however.
Joy and then soul-crushing defeat
Nadyr Dissat, 91, remembered that on a mild Sunday in the late autumn of 1950, she took a train from her home in Egenho Novo, a neighbuorhood further north in Rio, to the Maracana. Her cousin had bought tickets for the World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay.
The vociferous fans entered the Maracana in high spirits, chanting and singing. They were certain of victory. Years later, Dissat would see Frank Sinatra and Pope John Paul II at the stadium, but never would the Maracana be that packed again. FIFA’s official match reports shows an attendance of 173,850, but that day nearly 200,000 fans passed through the turnstiles.
From high up in the stands, Dissat watched the drama unfold. First Juan Schiaffino equalised and then Urugayan captain Alcides Ghiggia scored to give Uruguay a 2-1 victory. The pre-game euphoria of the overconfident Brazilians turned into profound sadness. “I cried when I got back home,” recalled Dissat.
The Maracana’s nation-building exercise had failed, but the stadium still became a principal icon of both Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, symbolising the Brazilians’ supposed love for sport and the populist ideology behind it. The “geral [general standing area],” a low-lying area of concrete that encircled the playing field, was the populist heart-beat, allowing for the inclusion of the entire social diaspora, because tickets were valued at just three reias [up to 2005]. Rowdy and uncontrollable, the “geral” eliminated social differences and represented “ellipitical democracy”.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, the global sporting landscape was transformed. Post-modernist mega-events mushroomed, requiring huge capital and a consumerist model of fandom, a shift from the ideas of democracy, industrial modernity and participatory fandom, so prevalent during the conception of the Maracana.
A cosmetic clean-up
The geral did not fit the narrative. The Maracana was purged, socially cleansed, and so, the stadium, without the geral for the 2007 PanAmerican Games, rapidly became the Brazilian pitch to hosts mega-events to both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, or even, a code for pleasing global capital.
“The Maracana’s soul has been extracted,” commented Christopher Gaffney, a geography professor at the University of Zurich.
Today’s Maracana is state of the art, with parking facilities, television studios, lush sky-boxes and all the requirements of a modern sporting temple. But, as it welcomes the world, the Maracana no longer feels like home to Carioca fans. “A new world” is one of the Olympic slogans, but as the Maracana showcases, for whom?