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Brazil

Day 53: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilMaracanã Stadium, known simply to Brazilians as the Maracanã, is one of the most iconic names in world football. It is the beating heart of a nation obsessed with the sport. One day in 1950 the heart nearly stopped beating. It was the final of the first World Cup to be held in Brazil. Acknowledging its importance, Rio had invested in the largest football stadium ever built, and their ambition seemed to have paid off when 199,854 people (still the world record attendance at a football match) were packed in for the match. Brazil had coasted through the early rounds and the final was expected to be a formality. But their opponents, Uruguay, had not read the script. First they equalized the Brazilian goal, then, at exactly 4.33 on the afternoon of 16 July 1950, they went into a 2-1 lead. The vast crowd fell silent. According to Alex Bellos, in his book Futebol, the Uruguayan goal scorer Ghiggia recollected years later, 'Only three people have... silenced the Maracanã. Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.' Brazil were beaten in their own home. The psychological effect extended far beyond the football fraternity. It was a national disaster. The writer José Lins do Rego saw in it the confirmation of something preordained: 'it stuck in my head that we really were a luckless people, a nation deprived of the great joys of victory, always pursued by bad luck, by the meanness of destiny.'

The second World Cup final to be played in Brazil will take place on 13 July 2014, and it will be in the Maracanã again. Today I catch a glimpse of the great stadium, but only from a visitor area. The pitch that saw the Great Silence is full of trucks and cranes and diggers as the Maracanã undergoes a £270 million facelift. When the wonderful sweeping amphitheatre reopens in February 2013 it will have been reduced to a capacity of a mere 80,000, but they will enjoy state-of- the-art comfort. Meanwhile the closest you can get to the glory days of Brazilian football is a Visitors' Centre mock-up of the Calçada da Fama, the Pavement of Fame, where living legends like Zico, Pelé and Jairzinho have left an imprint of their bare feet.

It seems inconceivable, though ominously possible, that another national tragedy could take place in Rio in 2014. Brazil and soccer success are still inextricably linked. This is, after all, the country of Roza FC, the only team in the world entirely made up of transvestites, and of seventeen-year-old Milene Domingues, the 'keepy-uppy' phenomenon who kept a ball in the air for nine hours and six minutes. It's also the country where commentators vie for who can stretch the single word 'Goal!' out the longest. With Tim Vickery, an English football journalist who's lived in Brazil since the 1980s, I went to watch commentator André Henning, who screamed a superhuman twenty-three- second 'G...o....a...l!' and without pulling a breath went straight into the rest of his patter. He tells me the record for the single word is held by a Romanian at twenty-nine seconds. Try it, it's not as easy as you think.

To help put football in Brazil in perspective, Tim takes me round to the Fluminense Football Club, one of the four big clubs of Rio – the others being Botafogo, Vasco da Gama (the first to introduce black players) and Flamengo, currently the most successful.

At the turn of the century one Charles Miller, son of a Scots engineer who'd come to Brazil to build railways, arrived in Rio and brought some footballs with him. Thanks to Miller and the local British contingent, Rio became the birthplace of Brazilian football. Fluminense was founded in 1902 by a wealthy Anglo-Brazilian called Oscar Cox. He and his friends saw it as much as a social club as a football club and it was always associated with the elite. And there is still the feeling that it's a club for the better-off.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 53: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 219

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