Monday, October 29, 2007

Football at the Maracana

I recently had this story published in the Christchurch Press, but this time it hasn't made it through to the NZ Stuff website, which no longer seems to be putting all the Fairfax newspapers' travel content online. So I thought I'd post it here. From my time in South America in 2004 and 2005. Photo courtesy of Ian Skipworth.

Viewed from the exit of the nearby metro station, Rio de Janeiro’s famous Maracaná Stadium looks uncannily like Wellington’s 'Cake Tin', writ extremely large. With a circular design ahead of its time, Brazil's national football ground was built for the 1950 World Cup. Originally intended to hold 200,000 people, a conversion to an all-seater format in the 1990s has reduced capacity to around half that number - but it's still one of the largest and most atmospheric sports grounds in world.

A trip to see a football game is the only real reason for tourists to come up to north Rio de Janeiro, where the Maracaná is situated. The flat, grim-looking industrial landscape surrounding the stadium reveals a different side of Rio from the showpiece golden beaches and lush, towering cliffs of Copacabana and Ipanaema on the city’s southern shores.

In the soupy March heat, throngs of people are pouring up the concrete ramp from the metro station and the surrounding streets. .Today’s game is what is known in South America as a “clásico” - a local derby between historic Rio clubs Botafogo and Flamengo. The 67,000 fans won't come close to filling the stadium, but they're enough to leave a handful of backpackers feeling swamped in the fever pitch outside the stadium.

We're rescued by a young Brazilian couple, who invite us to sit with them in the Botafogo section. Though the opposing fans are prudently separated, the vibe is relatively relaxed. There doesn’t seem to be the visceral, tribal rage toward the other side that is associated with football in London, Glasgow or Buenos Aires.

We’re a few seats away from the mandatory percussion section, which, half an hour before the game, is already hammering out rapid samba rhythms. The crowd dances and sways, while vendors stumble between the rows with awkward trays of beer and cigarettes.

Our new Brazilian friend Paolo, decked out in the black and white of Botafogo, sings along vehemently with the songs and chants in incomprehensible football-crowd Portuguese. “I’ve been a Botafogo fan ever since I can remember”, he tells me. “Botafogo is my life”. His grin indicates that he’s only exaggerating slightly.

“I don’t really care either way” confides his girlfriend Maria. “I’m from Sao Paulo”. But she knows all the words to the songs, and sings along heartily as well.

The game starts, to great excitement, and Botafogo make a bright beginning. In the first ten minutes an attack into the Flamengo penalty area produces a shot which cannons off the crossbar. There’s a gasp of disappointment from the Botafogo fans. Then, a Botafogo midfielder steps forward, and from outside the area, curls a left-footed shot into the top right hand corner of the net.

“Gooooooooal!” Our section of the crowd goes delirious. The samba rhythm doubles its speed, and the guys up the back unfurl an enormous black banner which they roll down over the twenty rows in front. We're all supposed to help make it jiggle and flutter, before it's rolled up to the back row again.

A bare-chested guy behind me has been waving a giant Botafogo flag since before the start of the game. Now he swings it in ever-widening circles. With each revolution the crossbar passes so close to my head I have to duck. On one wave I don’t move in time, and it clips my scalp.

Seeming to notice the presence of other spectators for the first time, he apologises profusely, and introduces himself. We exchange pleasantries for a moment. Then he goes back to waving the flag, and I go back to ducking.

There’s a commotion to our left. An overexcited young fan has spilt his beer on the people in front, and is being summarily ejected from the area. “With the way he acts, you’d think he was a Flamengo fan”, someone calls out. The young guy turns and waves his arms apologetically. “No, no, I’m for Botafogo” he insists. “Botafogo forever!”.

Meanwhile, Flamengo have equalized, with a simple goal after an attack down the right. Not only are the scores level, but the spark seems to have gone out of Botafogo’s play, and they look muddled. As halftime draws near, the samba slows and quietens, then eventually peters out altogether.

Things go further downhill in the second half. Fifteen minutes in, Flamengo take the lead. Again, it’s a soft goal, with a cross from the right headed straight in by a Flamengo attacker who has easily lost his marker.

Worse, Botafogo look as though they’ve forgotten how to play football. Players give the ball away, attacks break down in midfield, and passes go inexplicably nowhere.

One guy about two rows in front of us is a little drunk, and has been extremely vocal in the first half. Now he sits down and buries his head in his hands. Every so often, he gets up, walks up towards the top of the stand with his back to the game, shaking his head. Then he returns to his seat and puts his head back in his hands.

“You’re shit!” he laments loudly. “Why are you so shit?”.

With time running out, Botafogo rouse themselves for one last attack. Improbably stringing some passes together, they set up a shot, but it’s blocked. The ball pinballs around the penalty area. It hits the post, then is cleared off the line by a Flamengo defender. Just when it seems that the opportunity is lost, a Botafogo player threads a shot through the mass of bodies and into the back of the net.

Two-all! The sombre, dejected fans explode into life and surge out of their seats, and the percussion section instantly starts up the insistent samba beat again.

Flamengo kick off, but within thirty seconds, the referee blows for full time. Elation spills through the crowd. With a feeling of having got out of jail, the Botafogo fans are laughing and singing once more. The draw means that, for now, Botafogo retain their lead in the Campeonato Carioca - the Rio de Janeiro championship - and stay ahead of Flamengo in the Brazilian league

As the fans make their way patiently through the intense heat of the exit tunnel under the stadium, they’re chanting “Flamengo’s in the favela!” (the grim, chaotic shantytowns that ring Rio); “Flamengo’s in the favela!

They throng out of the ground and disperse down the ramp into the metro station or out into the streets, where the late evening sunlight is sending long shadows over the bleak landscape surrounding the stadium.

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