The tunnel is ahead of you. The roar of the crowd is deafening. Sixty thousand voices ring out. Sixty thousand boots stamp.
Brasil! Brasil! Brasil!
Flashes from thousands of cameras flicker as the roar gets even louder. The muscles in your stomach tighten, and your heart starts to beat. The shouts reach a crescendo as you climb up the steps and emerge onto the pitch. The sea of colour...the waving flags...the sheer volume of voices becomes thunderous. The world seems to go mad....
I cannot recommend the Maracana Stadium tour enough. It blew me away, and I came away not just impressed at the professional museum they had set up, but emotional as well. For anyone with an appreciation and love for the beautiful game, as Pele called it, a visit here is de rigeur.
Maracana ranks with the Corcovado and Sugarloaf as one of the great tourist icons of Rio de Janeiro. It was built in 1950 and was the biggest football stadium in the world. More than 100,000 spectators attended the inaugural game; now, due to FIFA regulations that the world’s stadiums have to have seats, rather then stands, it houses just 60,000. The games played here and the players involved have become world legends -- Pele, Garrincha, Zico, and Ronaldo. Brazil must have a factory tucked away in the Amazon which produces endless amazing players. You cannot separate Brazil from futebol. To watch Brazil play is to watch the game being played to perfection -- you have never seen a country use such flair and imagination on the pitch. The world's football teams go against this goliath every four years in the World Cup. If they are lucky, Brazil will have an off-day (versus France 1998). If they are unlucky?...well, the respect the world has is such that no one really begrudges losing to them.
The stadium makes a good half-day excursion. Tours can be booked at your hotel, or you can do it independently. My hotel suggested attending the Flamengo versus Fluminese game, but unfortunately, I had to turn it down, as I was flying to the Pantanal that day. I did, however, take the METRO to Maracana station, and from there, the stadium is a short walk along the concrete walkway, which feeds thousands of fans into the stadium. The stadium itself is breathtaking from the outside. It towers hundreds of feet into the air, and there are indentations like those on the Coliseum arrayed around the outside. Entrance is gained from the main street that follows the motorway, and this, in turn, leads to a very modern museum. At the entrance to the museum is a small piece of green turf. Here is a footballer in the national kit of yellow shirt and shorts, showing off his ball skills to the tourists.
Next to him is the futebol Hall of Fame, with inductees’ foot and boot prints preserved in concrete. You can see Julinho, Orlando, Bellini, and current football god Ronaldo -- but the biggest crowds are grouped around Pele, the greatest world footballer ever. Then, it is inside the museum, which is a joy. For 12 reals, you can roam around a very high-tech museum that only opened in 2000. Ingles-speaking guides are there to help you, and an elevator will take you to the sixth floor, which gives an overview of the entire stadium.
You emerge from the elevator high up in the stands, and it truly is a wow moment. The biggest in the world? How do you describe it? A 200-foot-long oval pitch, with goalposts at either end. Rising up like waves are rows and rows of seats, all coloured yellow, blue, and white. The seats were covered in a concentric concrete canopy. In front of me was the press pit, and in the middle of the pitch was where the tunnel from the changing rooms emerged. Numerous machines watered the pitch, and a player headed the ball into the air below me for the tourists.
Back down in the museum, you are greeted by the caption below:
BRAZIL -- FIVE TIMES CHAMPION -- THE COUNTRY OF FOOTBALL
This ran above blown up photos of all the World Cup-winning teams. They won in 1958, 1962, 1970 (against title defending champions England), 1994, and 2002. It was looking at the team for 2002 that the memories came flooding back for me -- Ronaldo, Rovinho, goggle-eyed Ronaldinho. On the day we played Brazil, I got up early and went over the road to the pub as the game was being played in Japan. Watching the most nervous game of the tournament in a tense pub, there was that feeling of ecstasy when England scored first, slowly decreasing as the Brazilian juggernaut ground us down. The forward strikers of Ronaldo and Ronaldino dashed through our defenses, as lithe as samba dancers. They played such an incredibly entertaining game that anyone who loves the game has a bond with the Brazilian team.
Then it was downstairs to the changing rooms. I was bowled over -- my imagination ran riot. There were huge rows of metal bathtubs and tons of coat hooks where the team kit would be hung, ready for the next game. A row of twenty showers and an indoor green pitch, complete with practice net.
Then it was time for the tunnel, which runs from the changing rooms to the middle of the pitch. They recreate with lights, sounds, and SFX, the feeling of walking down that tunnel onto the pitch at the start of the game. Strobe lights recreate flashbulbs going off, and the sound of drums and voices plays and builds to a deafening crescendo. The rising excitement was taking over -- I was beginning to feel I was beginning a game. When I climbed the stairs, my stomach was knotted, and I had a lump in my throat. I blinked into the daylight, and all those 60,000 seats, in my mind’s eye, were filled with ecstatic fans. My heart was beating fast, and I had a tear in my eye.
I did become emotional. I don't know what it was. Love of Brazil? Love of football? All I knew was that I felt like crying. I was standing in the middle of Maracanas pitch, and I felt as if my heart was breaking. On the way out, there is a big picture of Ronaldo, swathed in the yellow Brazilian flag. The caption states:
Be proud to be Brasilian...
I may not be Brasilian in nationality, but for a few moments today, I certainly was in spirit....