Estadio Maracana - A Brazilian colossus
© Popper Foto

There are few stadiums in the world that can rightly claim to be truly historic monuments as well as sporting arenas. But the Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho, or the Maracana as it is popularly known, with its enormous expanse, huge seating capacity and majestic architecture, is definitely one of them.

Built in the heart of Río de Janeiro for the 1950 FIFA World Cup , the colossal stadium has witnessed some of the most unforgettable moments in Brazilian and world football.

Within the realm of South American football, the Maracana has taken on mythical proportions and represents an almost impregnable fortress. A good performance in itself is no guarantee of winning there. Some of Brazil's greatest ever players, Pele, Garrincha, Zico and Romario, have all graced the hallowed ground where fanatical crowds of up to 183,000 mean only the very toughest visitors survive.

Building for grandeur
With the FIFA World Cup as a pretext, the Brazilians set about building the biggest football stadium in the world. The idea was to construct an enormous structure that would provide a suitably majestic setting for the host country's victory at the 1950 tournament. And so work began in 1948 with over 10,000 labourers toiling ceaselessly under the blazing Rio sun. When the stadium was complete, the capacity exceeded the previous record holder, Hampden Park in Glasgow, by 43,000.

The A Noite newspaper reflected the immense sense of pride felt by all Brazilians at the time: "Today, Brazil has the biggest and the best stadium in the world. Now we have a truly fantastic setting where the whole world can admire our sporting grandeur and prowess."

The stadium was officially introduced to the world before the opening match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup, where the hosts would play five of their six games (one would be at the Pacaembu). Brazil, under Flavio Costa, were firm favourites to lift the trophy and approached the final contest against Uruguay with the swagger of champions-elect after easing aside Sweden and Spain 7-1 and 6-1 respectively. As the tournament was played on a final group stage basis that year, a draw was all Brazil needed in the deciding match to be crowned champions.

Maracanazolives for Brazil
The Final was played on 16 July 1950, in front of an official crowd of 174,000, although reliable sources put this figure much higher. One such person was Joao Havelange, the President of FIFA between 1974 and 1988, who recollects: "There were some 220,000 people in the stadium that day," a figure equivalent to 10 percent of Río de Janeiro's population at the time.

Things appeared to be going to plan when Friaca gave the home side the lead, but Uruguay's response was to rock Brazil to its very core. Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia turned the game around for the Charrúa, handing them a 2-1 win and the title. Without doubt the saddest moment in the history of Brazilian football was met by an eerie, haunting silence in the gigantic stadium. The world's media dubbed Uruguay's shock victory as the Maracanazo, a term that is still used today whenever a visiting team wins at the stadium.

"Grown men fought back tears after the game. Some fans had left just before the end with the game all square, thinking Brazil were champions. Yet even before they reached the main gates, their dream had gone up in smoke," recalled Havelange.

As the story goes, the then President of FIFA, Jules Rimet, was making his way down to the pitch to present the trophy to the Brazilians. By the time he reached the pitch Uruguay had turned the game around and were now world champions. A little taken aback by the sudden turn of events, Rimet discarded the congratulatory speech that he had prepared for the Brazilians and simply handed the cup over to the Uruguayan hero Obdulio Varela.

Some say that Brazil have never fully avenged the defeat, but on 16 July 1989 a goal by Romario was enough to beat Uruguay in the final of that year's Copa America on the same ground.

Records, idols and a common ground
The property of the Rio de Janeiro state, the Maracana regularly hosts matches involving its 'big four' teams - Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco. The Maracana has also witnessed some of the most memorable moments in the history of Brazilian football, such as Pele's 1000th career goal for Santos against Vasco on 19 November 1969. When Pele beat the Argentine goalkeeper Edgardo Andrada with a 34th minute penalty, the ensuing pitch invasion by hundreds of fans and photographers stopped the match.

One of the most poignant and evocative chapters in the stadium's history came on 20 January 1983, when Garrincha, one of the all-time greats of Brazilian football, passed away and his remains were brought to the stadium. Thousand of fans came to pay their respects and bid a final farewell to the idol.

In 2000, 50 years after the legendary Maracanazo, the stadium hosted the final of the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup. In an all-Brazilian affair, 73,000 supporters saw Corinthians prevail against rivals Vasco to lift the trophy.

As for its immediate future, the Maracana may well go down the same route as London's Wembley Stadium after the President of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), Ricardo Texeira, expressed his desire to raze the old stadium and rebuild a new one with the same name. The controversial proposal was met with huge protests and was rejected outright by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro and the majority of its citizens. The matter is far from closed, however, and any decision is sure to have repercussions throughout Brazil.

As usual, the last word falls to the great Pele: "The Maracana is a special place for all Brazilians, but especially for me. It was there that I scored my first goal for the Auriverde against Argentina, and also where I scored my 1000th professional goal years later. Some 1,700 people have played on that pitch and the aura of the place is extraordinary."