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The Maracanã
The ultimate destination?
By Marc Skinner

For Muslims it's definitely Mecca, for Jews it's certainly Jerusalem and for Catholics it's probably an audience with the Pope at the Vatican. But for any religiously minded football fan, there are probably a number of venues that would be considered the ultimate destination.

Near the top of most people's list would be The Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. Images of 160,000 mad Brazilians packed into the world's biggest football stadium at the site of a World Cup final and probably the best goal scored by any player that has or will put on a WFC shirt. I am, of course, referring to when a young John Barnes danced his way through the entire Brazilian defence to chip the ball into the net and set up a famous 2-0 England victory.

So when it came to arranging the "holiday of a lifetime" in South America that I had promised my wife in exchange for being released for World Cup duties, I at least made sure that we were in Rio during a weekend when there was some action at The Maracanã (life is full of difficult compromises!).

Answering the recent appeal from BSaD (that I read from my current home in Boston USA) for some more diverse postings, I made sure I was armed with notebook and pen when I made my pilgrimage on the 25th of October this year.

Flamengo 2 Guarani 1

Flamengo were hosting Guarani in what appeared to be an important match. With only a couple of games of the first phase of the season left, Guarani needed a win to avoid relegation and Flamengo needed to win to keep alive their chance of a berth in the play-offs in what up to now had been an average season. Flamengo are the biggest club in Brazil with a reputed fan base approaching forty million - however, the Maracanã is not their stadium. Any of the four Rio clubs will play their big fixtures at the municipal venue - a bit like the Arse this year in Europe.

With a rather impressive looking credit card style ticket in hand, we found our way to the rather unimpressive stadium entrance. Like much of Brazil, its appearance resembles something that was built on the cheap in the 50s/60s and has had no maintenance since. A turnstile dutifully ate my match souvenir and allowed me to enter into what I thought would be the cauldron of the Maracanã.

I cannot underestimate the disappointment that I felt as I made my way through the dark, dank passageways. The smell of stale urine predominates throughout and would waft intermittently past our seats during the game. Half the sinks and urinals in the toilets were smashed, leaving broken plumbing to drip onto the sodden floor. The toilet scene from trainspotting springs to mind. Much of the concrete that was set nearly fifty years ago is beginning to flake, revealing the stadium's rusting iron skeleton. The place is in dire need of attention. England's 2006 bid is in no immediate danger from this part of the world.

We chose our places on the lower tier - the only part of the ground with seats. The stadium attains its size more from depth and not height, causing the elevation of the terracing to be even lower than the old Rookery. Not the best of views for all. As kick off time approached, it became increasingly apparent that the stadium was going to remain almost completely empty. If it wasn't for the familiar face of Romario at number eleven, I would have been sure we were about to witness a second warm up game. And who was this new star Petrobras? Was France98 denied another Brazilian genius? A quite versatile player, as he appears at every number on the back of the fans shirts. Only later would I find out that Petrobras is Brazil's biggest oil company!

"There is a strict alcohol ban at the stadium", asserted the slovenly dressed steward - however, it didn't take much proficiency in Portuguese to realise that "Peanut Man" became "Can of Skol in a Peanut Bag Man" if you gave him $2 instead of $1. Several kilos of monkey nuts later and it was half time with Flamengo trailing 1-0, much against the run of play. Although it's very difficult to judge, the quality of football seemed no better than the Premiership. Apart from the usual Latino theatrics and an insistence on playing the ball to feet, there were no obvious differences in style. And by the way Mr. Hoddle, they play with a flat back four.

Undeterred by the occasional drip seeping from the stand above (Where was it coming from? It hadn't rained for five days!), we remained to witness a sterling fight back with two goals within a minute of the break including a clinical finish from Romario. The local support sprang to life, discharging their fireworks and dancing to the Samba drum beats on the upper terraces. It must be quite something when the stadium is full.

Towards the end of the game we had managed to attract the resident weirdo, who according to my wife's Portuguese-come-Spanish translation was "Crying with excitement" at meeting an English fan, before offering us coke of the non-fizzy variety.

The final whistle came to the relief of the local fans, assured that their season was still alive. El Weirdo dispersed to try and ply his trade elsewhere. I left with a sense of great disappointment. If this is the flagship of Brazilian football then it is in a very sorry state. I later read that less than 10,000 were at the game, with receipts of just $70,000. That's enough spare capacity to fill Wembley, Old Trafford and The Vic combined.

Maybe I came on a bad day, maybe it had been oversold to me by the hotel staff, maybe this competition is insignificant among others and maybe there's no money here anymore. The match still made front page news in the local Sunday papers.

My football memories of Brazil will hopefully remain with the dozens of incredibly talented youngsters playing football volleyball along Copacobana beach and not with the mess at the Maracanã. The country still lives and breathes football and is so proud of its national team despite its WC98 failings (only the bloody final!). It will be a long time before I complain about the state of the game in England again.