Maracanã: Rebirth of Brazil’s Temple of Soccer

The historic facade of Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro was preserved when it underwent a nearly three-year renovation.
The historic facade of Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro was preserved when it underwent a nearly three-year renovation. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Despite the passage of more than 60 years, the demons of the 1950 World Cup still linger over Maracanã, Brazil’s grand dame of soccer arenas.

When Maracanã was built — specifically to host the 1950 World Cup — it was considered the greatest soccer stadium in the world, and Brazilians thought a triumph was such a foregone conclusion that a victory song, Brasil os vencedores, (Brazil the Victors) had already been composed.

In the post-World War II years, soccer and the grand stadium were considered powerful forces in unifying the country and bringing the poor into the national fold.

But with 11 minutes remaining in the final match of the 1950 World Cup, Uruguay’s Alcides Edgardo Ghiggia brushed a shot past the Brazilian goalkeeper and little Uruguay was up 2-1, which ended up as its margin of victory.

“The goal was so great, its impact so violent, that the one goal, seemed to divide Brazilian life into two phases, before and after,” journalist Joao Maximo wrote at the time.

Shell-shocked Brazilians who had packed the stadium to the rafters could scarcely believe the result. For some, the pain has never receded.

Zico, the legendary Brazilian soccer player of the 1970s and early 1980s, said his father, Jose Antunes Coimbra, was in the stands that day in 1950. After the loss, he never returned to Maracanã — not even to watch his famous son play.

“He was a Portuguese man who had fallen in love with Brazil, and he was heartbroken like most of the 200,000 people in the stands that day,” said Zico (Arthur Antunes Coimbra), now a coach.

“If he came to Maracanã to watch me play, then I never saw him,” said Zico, who is still the highest scorer in Maracanã history, with 333 goals in 435 matches.

This year’s FIFA World Cup final also will be held in Maracanã, and Brazilian fans are hoping for a day of redemption.

The national team is well aware of its responsibility, said Zico. “We are not really prepared to be the second one but only the winner — the champions,” he said. “All the soccer players know this.”

Brazil was the surprise winner in last year’s Confederations Cup, raising hopes for a World Cup victory.

“The Confederations Cup was very important,” said Zico. “It brought the fans together around this team. I think the Brazilian people do believe in this team ” — even though so many of its members play outside Brazil.

Maracanã, whose formal name is Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho, will be the scene of six other World Cup games, and it has undergone a head-to-toe renovation. While Maracanã is ready, last-minute work on at least three of the 12 World Cup stadiums continues. “We are getting there,’’ FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valck said Friday.

Because Maracanã occupies such a vaunted place in the national psyche, some purists debate whether it should have been tampered with at all. But Zico isn’t one of them.

For him, the heart and soul of this temple of soccer remain. “For me, it’s only Maracanã. There’s no old and no new Maracanã. Maracanã is just magic.”

In a land of soccer fanatics, just about every futebol fan, it seems, has an indelible memory of the old Maracanã.

Taking in a game there was a rite of passage, an experience that kids would recall with their dads, and granddads and cousins for generations to come.

They talk of sitting chock-a-block with fellow Brazilians, even sideways on retired bench seating when the stadium was especially packed, and such tumult when Brazil scored an important goal that the arena literally shook.

They remember games that made them sing and games that made them weep.

The game that Raul Melo, a Rio historian, will never forget is the 1982 World Cup when Zico was on the team and Brazil faced Italy. Although the Brazilian team was the pre-Cup favorite, it lost 3-2 and was eliminated from the tournament. Italy went on to take the title.

“I still can’t stand to see replays of that game,” Melo said. “I cry.”

Zico himself is philosophical about the loss. “We really didn’t play very well. It happens,” he said. “We were very sad, but it wasn’t as if the world ended.”

During the nearly three-year renovation, the historic facade — it was named a cultural heritage site by the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage — remained the same. But the interior got a complete remodeling and a new roof made of fiberglass and Teflon that protects 95 percent of the stadium’s seats was added. A snazzy LED-lighting system can project 110 colors on the roof.

In the old days when there were bench seats, Maracanã could easily accommodate more than 100,000 fans. And during the 1950 World Cup, nearly 174,000 paying fans and others who pushed their way into the stadium for free sent the attendance soaring to around 200,000.

The bench seats were eliminated when Maracanã was spiffed up for the 2007 Pan American Games and that brought the capacity down to 87,000, meaning there were no longer those resounding goals when the stadium seemed to sway like a ship at sea.

In the most recent renovation, capacity was taken down to 78,000 and more exits were added to comply with FIFA requirements. There’s a new operations center where images generated by 360 cameras placed around the arena are monitored on a video wall.

Under new security protocols, the entire stadium should be able to be evacuated in eight minutes — four minutes less than FIFA’s regulations.

If the pre-renovation stadium was a dumpy but beloved grand dame, the new Maracanã is a hipper sophisticate with 60 bars and snack areas, an air-conditioned VIP area with box seats, food and drink included in the ticket price in the Maracanã Mais section, and green technology.

Rainfall captured by the new roof has reduced the amount of potable water needed to irrigate the Bermuda Celebration grass on the pitch by 50 percent and the rain water also is used in the restrooms. Solar panels supply 3 percent of the stadium’s power needs.

The thinner blades of the new grass are supposed to help the ball roll more quickly down the field. The grass was imported from the United States and grown on a turf farm in Saquarema in the state of Rio de Janeiro until it was ready to be transplanted on the pitch.

Most of the items that were on display in the Maracanã museum are in storage, but the ball used when Pelé scored his 1,000th goal on Nov. 19, 1969 is still on a pedestal.

Stadium operators plan to bring back the other historical items, such as the velvet chair where Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in 1980, after they figure out where to put the new museum.

Maracanã is one of Rio de Janeiro’s top tourist attractions, and on a recent day international visitors were busy snapping pictures of each other on the perimeter of the pitch and lounging on the new seats.

Zico’s assessment of the changes at Maracanã?

“Marvelous — for those who see it, for those who play in it.”

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