Brazil has more superbowl stadiums than any other country in the world. But without doubt the jewel of them all is the Maracana-Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

The Maracana! Like the names of Copacabana and Ipanema, the word alone is steeped in passion and magic, conjuring up as it does images of Brazilian masters - Garrincha, Pelé, Zico - strutting majestically to the samba rhythms booming out from the terraces, while in the distance the Corcovado Mountain and its giant Christ watches benignly over this beautiful, hyperactive city.

Brazil has more giant superbowls than any other major footballing nation (with the possible exception of the former Soviet Union). In 1978 there were 27 stadiums with a capacity of over 45,000 and five holding more than 100,000. But unless you are a confirmed paulista - that is, from the rival city of São Paolo - the most treasured jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Maracana, in the former capital, Rio de Janeiro.

Like most things Brazilian - most notably Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele to you and me) - the title Maracana is a nickname. When opened on June 16 1950 it was officially called the Estadio Municipal. (Didi, then a junior, scored the first goal.) Then in 1964 it was named after Mario Filho, the founder of Rio's daily newspaper, Jornal dos Sports. But to the locals (known as Cariocas), and of course to the world, it is simply the Maracana, which is actually the name of a small river which flows close by.

In the context of the early 1950s, the new Maracana was quite the most glamorous stadium ever built. After the agonies of the Second World War and the austerity of the 1948 Olympics in London, the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was a chance to show that the New World could put on a show to match anything yet staged in Europe.

The stadium itself was built entirely in reinforced concrete as a massive oval of two tiers, divided by a smaller intermediate level of open boxes. Circling the rear 34 rows was a dramatically sweeping roof, which was then the largest spanning cantilevered cover in the world, spanning nearly 30m. (The current record is 58.5m, at Old Trafford, Manchester.)

Sumptuous Luxury
Officially there were 125,000 seats and 30,000 standing places, although as the World Cup proved, the total capacity with extra standing, was nearer 200,000. But this was no basic shell, as many of its imitators have been. The underground dressing rooms were regarded as most luxurious for the era, with oxygen masks for any player suffering from the effects of humidity. The sumptuous VIP section had its own elevators - a real novelty at the time. There was also a fully equipped mini-hospital, several restaurants, a 130-bed hostel, a children's play area and separate players' lounges. Even an ice-cream manufacturing plant was built on the site.

One feature which attracted great interest from designers around the world was the use of a concrete moat around the pitch 3m wide and 3.5m deep. This of course was to prevent fans invading the pitch, without the need for the type of obstructive fences which had been common in the volatile atmosphere of Latin American football from its earliest days. (According to some reports the new moat was at times filled with water as an extra deterrent!)

Hardly ready on time
Careful note was also made of the Maracana's advanced floodlighting system. In 1950 permanent lighting systems were mainly confined to North and South American stadiums. FIFA therefore decided not to allow the lights to be used for the World Cup, in fairness to European teams who had little experience of night-time games. But again, the Maracana provided a tantalising glimpse of the future.

Not all went smoothly, however. After two years work and some frantic last minute efforts by gangs of soldiers, the Maracana was clearly unready for the World Cup's opening match on 24 June 1950. The crowd of over 81,000 had thus to pick its way through rubble and dust in order to take their places for the carnival opening ceremony (which featured fireworks, a 21 gun salute and the release of 5,000 pigeons). There were also bitter arguments between the Rio authorities and the Brazilian Sports Federation over the allocation of tickets. To help pay for the stadium, some 30,000 five-year season tickets had already been sold for US $400 each.

After the World Cup, the building work would continue for a further 15 years before the complex was complete. The final bill amounted to US $10 million, a vast sum for the period.

But there is more to the Maracana than the football stadium. On the same site is the Maracazinho (an indoor sports arena), an athletics track, a swimming pool, velodrome and two small arenas for basketball and tennis.

Again, in the 1950s many a European complex was equally blessed. But the Maracana boasted an integrated layout, inter-linking, elevated walkways, carefully planned public transport and motorway connections, and a stylistic uniformity which made it truly innovative (even compared with American stadiums of the 1950s).

During the golden era of Brazilian football, the Maracana become a national temple of worship. There were many hallowed moments, but perhaps the most memorable came during a match between Santos and Fluminese, in March 1961, when Pele picked up the ball in his own penalty area and dribbled right through the opposition before rounding the opposing keeper for a stupendous solo goal. A plaque by the stadium entrance commemorates his achievement.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the stadium. In common with many reinforced concrete structures of its vintage, the Maracana has required regular attention. This, combined with an acute lack of funds, has forced the closure of certain sections and a steady reduction in capacity, to its current level of approximately 125,000.

The first danger sign came in 1988, when the stadium had to close for repairs for two weeks. In 1990 a further closure occurred when vibrations were felt in the upper tier. There was another eight-month period of renovation in 1992 after three fans died as a result of a barrier collapse.

Problem still unresolved
Since then there have been ongoing, but still unresolved discussions about selling part of the site for commercial development in order to fund modernisation of the stadium. The stadium owners, the state government of Rio, have also considered proposals to privatise the Maracana, or hand it over completely to the municipality.

Meanwhile, the national team has not played there since their World Cup qualifier against the old foe, Uruguay, in 1993.