All stadiums have ghosts. Every game, every brawl, every collective howl is a new phantom that adds an imperceptible layer of energy to the structure. That is why an old stadium makes you feel that buzz of anticipation when you enter its gates. That’s also why a new stadium, no matter the architect’s intention, can feel as sterile and antiseptic as a hospital bathroom. Rio’s Maracanã Stadium, otherwise known as the “Sistine Chapel of international football,” has hosted some of the most famous matches and concerts in the history of the world. It is also undergoing a “five-hundred-million-dollar face-lift”—but this is less a nip and tuck than full-scale vivisection.
The reinvention of the Maracanã has been happening for 15 years, but Rio activist and former professional soccer player Chris Gaffney described it to me better as the “killing of a popular space in order to sell Brazil’s culture to an international audience.” In 1999, the Maracanã had a capacity of roughly 175,000, although total crowds could reach near 200,000 when people jammed themselves into the standing-room-only open seating on the top level. Most famously, a 1963 contest between historic rivals Flamengo and Fluminense drew a record 194,000 people. The energy of that day is discussed in the hushed tones of folklore.
In 2000 the number of seats was reduced to 125,000. In 2005, it was reconfigured to seat only 85,000, at a cost of $200 million, to get Brazil ready for the Pan American Games. Now, as epicenter of the World Cup Finals and the Olympic Games, it will seat only 75,000 and will also include a shopping center. In an eerily symbolic construction move that mirrors the erasure of the favelas, the upper deck, once the famed low-cost open seating area for ordinary fans, will now be ringed by luxury boxes. An area that once sat thousands will, according to FIFA dictates, be a VIP-only section where modern Caesars can sit above the crowd. Those boxes will, in true U.S. fashion, be sold off to private business interests after the 2016 Games.
Gaffney has researched and written extensively about the history of the stadium. He pointed out to me that “the Maracanã was known for its large crowds, and many people refer to games by the number of people that were there to see them, not necessarily by what happened on the pitch.” Yet when soccer fans discuss “what happened on the pitch,” they do so with emotion. The Maracanã entered Brazilian lore as a place “born in traumatic circumstances.” It was built to host the 1950 World Cup—a massive engineering project intended to showcase Brazil’s potential as an emergent South American nation in the wake of World War II. At the 1950 finals, Brazil lost to Uruguay 2 to 1 in front of an estimated 220,000 spectators, one-tenth of Rio’s entire population at the time. As Alcides Ghiggia, who scored Uruguay’s winning goal in that decisive final game, put it: “Down through its history, only three people have managed to silence the Maracanã: the Pope, Frank Sinatra, and me.” The Maracanã is where the four major soccer clubs of Rio—Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense, and Vasco da Gama—have played out their historic rivalries. It is where Pelé scored his one-thousandth goal.
The stadium has come to symbolize the national character of both soccer and celebration. It is also seen as a reflection of Brazil’s worst problems during the time of dictatorship. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when Brazil’s cities suffered from mismanagement and capital flight, so did the Maracanã. Despite the fact that it was falling apart, and even after a section of the stands collapsed in 1992, it was still home to the largest crowds in the world. As history professor Marcos Alvito of the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio explained to me,
When Brazil started to enter more into the global economy and FIFA started to host events here, starting with the Club World Championships in 2000, there was a tremendous external pressure to eliminate the standing sections: You had to put in luxury boxes. And so it started undergoing these reforms, these middle-aged reforms, the sort of “nip and tuck” (which is also a very Brazilian thing to do). Dye the hair, stick in some fancy bits, sell yourself again to an international audience.
What is being “nipped and tucked” is the populares section. This is where the masses have always stood together. The change—from the masses standing as one in the upper deck to a ring of luxury boxes—could not be more jarring for followers of the sport and devotees of the Maracanã. Just as the Maracanã’s dramatic alterations symbolize, to many, a new, two-tiered Brazilian culture that excludes the masses, it can also be seen as an example of something being transformed to sell its “Brazilianness” at the expense of actual living, breathing Brazilians: another economic example of a Brazil in thrall treating its very culture as an export commodity to market abroad.
Limiting the Maracanã’s capacity has obvious, blaring, subtle-as-a-blowtorch symbolic implications. Brazil has always—from its beginnings—chosen to present itself as a mass mosaic, as opposed to the “melting pot” ideal promoted in the United States. Teddy Roosevelt famously railed against a multicultural ideal, saying that “there is no room in [the United States] for a hyphenated American,” but Brazil has always taken a different approach that pushes back against assimilation as an ideal. Brazil would be a multitude of different groups, but all together: something even greater than the sum of their parts. The Maracanã was the place where that mosaic of the cultural multitudes could form, where people could see themselves in the context of their adopted country. For that to change in such a dramatic fashion is difficult enough. To have it happen because an external, European body—FIFA—says that “no international sanctioned match can take place if people are standing” is really more than many cariocas can possibly bear. This speaks to an area of profound sensitivity in Brazil, rooted in its very founding as a country: the idea that Europe would exercise power over any hopes of sovereignty Brazilians might possess. As Gaffney put it, it’s “an insult to the rich culture of the stadium.”
Brazil is now left in a situation very familiar to those of us in the United States whose cities have built mega-stadiums with public funding: The people who pay the taxes that made a new Maracanã now cannot afford tickets to the Maracanã. “A modern stadium that we cannot enter,” as Gaffney called it. Alvito, his voice riddled with pathos, pointed out that the Maracanã “was made for crowds; crowds roar. Crowds litter. They cry. It is not just 200,000 to 75,000 that is the issue. It is who is going to be allowed in. It is the death of crowds.”
The following piece is an adapted excerpt from the recently published Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin.