Rio de Janeiro.

I had never been interested in going to an Maracana2England match before.  Travelling the length of the country to watch a team built from Chelski, ManUre and Arsenal prima donnas had never whetted my footy appetite.  But go watch them at the most iconic stadium in world football?  NOW you’re talking!

The Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho (more commonly known as The Maracanã) was built to host the 1950 World Cup final and was officially opened in June of that year, and in true Brazilian style it hadn’t wasn’t completed.  Brazil hadn’t had much luck in their previous three World Cups and was desperate to win it as hosts – so built the world’s biggest stadium to help them do it.

England, famously, did a ‘Newcastle Utd’…  Having sent a team consisting of Tom Finney, Stan Mortenson, Alf Ramsey and Billy Wright to our first World Cup, and being hailed by the Brazilian press as, ‘The Kings of Football’, they were beaten by the USA and then sent packing.  Maybe if they’d played a certain J. E. T. Milburn rather than having him warm the subs bench for the whole tournament things might’ve been different.

For the Brazilians though, this was going to be their year.  With a fervent home support, Maracana8their strongest ever team and a fantastic stadium to play in, SURELY they’d be glorious!  After winning their group they entered the final round robin stage along with Spain, Sweden and Uruguay.  Brazil went goal-mad.  They smashed Sweden 7-1 and destroyed Spain 6-1.  Uruguay had drawn one and won one, all Brazil needed to do was to avoid defeat in the final game to shake that monkey off their back.

The official figures show the attendance as 199,854, but it is generally agreed that it was more likely to have actually been somewhere between 205,000 and 215,000 – the largest crowd to ever witness a football game.

Brazil was hot favourites and was playing like it.  In the 2ndminute of the 2nd half they tookMaracana3 the lead, the crowd were at fever pitch; they could taste victory.  Then disaster, Uruguay equalised!  There was still no need to panic, they just had to hold on to the draw and they’d be champions, but on 79 minutes Uruguay took the lead as Ghiggia squeezed the ball past Barbosa.  The mighty Maracanã fell silent.  200,000 Brazilians inside the stadium and 50 million outside were stunned.  Uruguay captain, Obdulio Varela, collected the World Cup trophy from Jules Rimet on a deserted pitch to deafening silence from the departing crowd.

This is still the biggest disaster ever to have befallen Brazilian football; it is known as the ‘maracanazo’ (‘The Maracanã Blow’) and is steeped into the Brazilian psyche. It is still whispered about, in hushed tones, in shadowy corners of the city’s botequims (spit n sawdust bars).

Even the Gods of the magnificent 1970 team were haunted by the devastating defeat.  Having cruised through to the semi-finals in Mexico, Brazil faced Uruguay.  Again, Brazil was hot favourites and again, Uruguay scored first.  The Brazilians were stunned.  The only sound coming from the stands was from the Uruguayans, “You’re still scared!”  Pelé himself has spoken about the fear that ran through that great team as memories of the maracanazo flooded back.  Thankfully, Clodoaldo equalised, Brazil won 3-1 and the rest is history.

After the 1950 tournament the Maracanã became the main stadium for all 4 Rio clubs; Maracana6Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama, and set about engraining itself into the Carioca way of life.  In the heyday of Carioca football, local derbies could attract crowds of 150,000+, the record being a Flamengo v Fluminense match in 1963 which attracted the world record crowd of 177,000.

When Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup it went without saying that the Maracanã would hold the final, although it was also obvious that a LOT of work needed to be done to bring her up to FIFA standards.  In the end, a facelift became a complete overhaul and instead of having an improved Maracanã, Brazil has a ‘New Maracanã’.  The circular shape and the design reflects the old stadium, but this is all that remains of the old girl, nonetheless, she will become the only stadium in the world to have hosted TWO World Cup finals.

Being aware of it’s past makes every trip to the Maracanã feel like a footballing pilgrimage.  The history of the place oozes out at you from every pore of concrete as you walk up the ramp to get to the arquibancadas (terraces).

I have developed a deep love and respect for the stadium during my time here so when itMaracana7 was announced that England would play in the inauguration game, well, to say I was cock-a-hoop would be an understatement.

A month before the game there were rumours that the stadium may not be ready in time and the match would have to be held in Brasilia, but I remained optimistic – despite 3 completion deadlines already being missed.  The fact that the original quote of R$600m (£200m) ended up being nigh on doubled to R$1.8b is still a sore point with the locals, and one I will come back to in later editions.

A week before the game I arranged to go with my (Brazilian) mate, Norman.  It was decided he’d get the tickets once they went on sale online – we were set!

On the day of the match Norman and his girlfriend picked me up, Luciana in her Brazil shirt, Norman in his England shirt and with an England flag draped out of the window.  Norman is, in fact, half English, and so our very diplomatic convoy (consisting of precisely 1.5 Brazilians and 1.5 Englishmen) set off to the stadium, and it was there that I finally felt conspicuous, the only white shirt amongst a sea of yellow and blue!

The British Army football team were in attendance and there was some nice banter as the Brazilians chanted for Rooney and the Army lads and lasses responded in kind by chanting for Neymar.

Was it a building site?  Not that I saw.  It was by no means 100% complete, but it wasn’t a disaster, either.  There were some large screened-off areas where I guessed the real mess was being concealed.  There were minor problems getting into the stadium with the newly installed turnstiles, but then, you’d expect some teething problems.

Our seats were close to the England section so we were right in the thick of it.  The first half was so poor, barring a few tricky Neymar moments, that the home crowd were quite subdued, only springing into life to hush the England fans who had the audacity to spring into the odd rendition of ‘England till I die’.  I was a bit of a novelty for my neighbours, who requested photos at half time – I’m guessing they were dazzled by the beauty of my retro Italia ’90 shirt (complete with Gazza’s number 19, of course!).

Thankfully, the second half picked up, and with Brazil attacking the goal directly in front Maracana4of us I was certain we’d see a lot more of the action.  Brazil grabbed the first goal (which I beautifully missed, ITV style, whilst videoing the action! – but, ignoring the script, it was Fluminense’s serial goal-getter, Fred, who got his name in the history books with the first official goal of the new era of the stadium.

As soon as the dust settled Norman called it with a sage like nod, ‘we’ve got a game now’.  On came the Ox and England were transformed.  Much like Newcastle, they looked far more dangerous going forward than they looked comfortable sitting back.  After steady build up play in and around the Brazilian midfield, a neat one-two with Rooney and Oxlaid-Chamberlain scored a cracker from outside the box.  So unexpected was it that I couldn’t control myself and I was up out of my seat.  On sitting down I signalled my apologies to my neighbours, ‘amistoso, ne?’ (‘It’s a friendly, right?’).  It was all good with the exception of a Corinthians fan in front of me, so when Rooney curled in a beauty I didn’t overly celebrate and when the Corinthiano looked at me I simply said, ‘golaço, ne?’ (‘Beautiful goal, eh?’) he gave me the thumbs up and repeated, ‘é, golaço mesmo’ (‘yes, really beautiful’).

In the end a draw was a fair result.  The icing on the cake was that it was Paulinho of Maracana5Corinthians who scored the equaliser with a great volley, giving me the chance to celebrate with my new Corinthiano chum and return the ‘golaço’ compliment he’d given for Rooney’s goal.

I had a great day, although there was the obligatory knob in the away section offering a fella on outside.  The fella in question was a Brazilian wearing an Argentina shirt just to wind his fellow Brazilians up (think of a Geordie wearing a Mackem shirt in The Strawberry for a laugh…) but of course the old Falklands flag came out and the atmosphere turned sour.

The match was decent, the 2nd half being as good a half of football I’d seen all last season, but the main event was the stadium herself.  They have turned a behemoth lump of concrete into a wonderful stadium worthy of hosting her 2nd World Cup Final.

John Milton.  Rio de Janeiro, 2013.

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