For the love of the game

JD explores the magical settings that make Brazil’s stadiums a must-see for each and every tourist

“One thing is for sure,” says Oncal Vural, from Turkey. “My trip to Rio de Janeiro wouldn’t have been complete If I hadn’t gone to see Maracanã.” It was at the end of 2007 and Onal had been following the steps of many tourists before him: he went the beach, we took his photo in front of the Christ statue and he got the cable car up to Sugar Loaf mountain. But it was his love of football that led him to the famous stadium, even if, on that occasion, it was completely empty of players and fans. “Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to catch a game, but I just had to see the pitch: it’s Maracanã we’re talking about! I’d already seen the stadium in photos and on the TV – but I wanted to see the real deal.”

Just like Onal, more and more football-fanatic tourists enchanted with the mythology surrounding the world’s great stadiums are making them compulsory stops on their trips abroad. For them, setting foot in these spaces is just as, if not more important than visiting a museum. It’s more like a pilgrimage. It’s in light of this growing trend that many stadiums now offer guided visits on days when there are no games, and some have dedicated exhibition spaces (see box), where they retell the history of the teams who have played there on the walls, the seats, and in the atmosphere itself. “The guided visit takes you all the way down onto the pitch, and through the Football Museum and the Hall of Fame. It’s unmissable!”, raves Onal.

One of reasons Maracanã is so impressive is the sheer enormity of the place – not just in terms of the stadium seating, but the whole complex it occupies. The stadium was once the largest in the world (legend has it that at the 1950 World Cup final, when Brazil played – and lost to – Uruguay, it held 200,000 fans) and today it is still the biggest in Brazil, with capacity for 82,000 spectators. A stage for some of the greatest footballing moments in world history, from Pelé’s thousandth goal in 1969, to his last game, to unforgettable concerts from the likes of Paul McCartney and Queen, Maracanã is also set to be the main stadium for the 2014 World Cup, and may even get to host the final.

Beer and Popcorn
Tom Crookston, on the other hand, has been to both Maracanã and Mineirão, in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais. “I’m a huge football fan, so watching a game at Maracanã is a dream I’ve had since I was a kid,” says the Englishman. When he lived in Brazil in 2003, Tom and a mate headed over to Mineirão to see a match. “Everyone we knew at the time supported either Atlético Mineiro or Cruzeiro, so we decided to pick one team each; because of my friends, I decided on ‘Galo’ [the nickname for Atlético Mineiro]. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Atlético play, but we were in Belo Horizonte during the state league championship, and we went to watch Cruzeiro. Because it was only a low-key game, the stadium wasn’t very full but it’s really stunning and we had a great time,” says Tom, who returned to Brazil this year and finally got to visit Maracanã, where he watched Flamengo play Botafogo. “There was more excitement at Maracanã which made sense because it was a final. But it was still good to see both sides.”

Another Englishman who was determined to tick Maracanã off his list of things to see in Rio was Olly Hunter – but when the rivalry between the Carioca teams ended up coming between him and his dream stadium, he got to see Engenhão instead. “My Brazilian girlfriend, Zaira, and her mother are both Botafogo fans and the game at Maracanã that week was Flamengo V Fluminese,” explains Olly, who was excited about seeing a classic derby. “It would have been great for me – they’re both teams I know, but it didn’t matter how much I begged; Zaira and her mum both said there was no way they were taking me to see their rival teams.” So, out of love, Olly decided not to displease his mother-in-law and instead agreed to visit Botafogo’s home stadium, Engenhão, where they were playing Goiás – and he has no regrets. Constructed for the 2007 Pan American games and currently the most modern stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Engenhão gets its name from the area in which it’s located – Engenho de Dentro. “The stadium in incredible! It’s really modern and spacious. The atmosphere is great, really animated, and the fans were singing the whole time,” recalls Olly, who ended up falling for his girlfriend’s team and leaving the stadium with one of their shirts. “I’m proud to say that ‘Fogo’ is my second favourite team after Queens Park Rangers,” confirms Olly, who noticed some key differences between the stadiums in England and Brazil: “We sat on the terraces with popcorn and beer, two things you never see at an English game.”

Whilst living in Santa Maria, a city in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, in 2005, another Englishman, Charlie Hathaway had a huge stroke of luck. As well as getting to see a game at Beira-Rio, the famous stadium which hosts the most important southern Brazilian games, he witnessed the Brazilian national team playing Paraguay – and Ronaldinho playing at his first home. “The city’s fans chartered a bus to go and see the game in Porto Alegre and it was a party the whole way: drumming and singing for hours on end. Beira Rio is a beautiful stadium; there were loads of flares and flags and, of course, a lot of excitement especially, of course, when Brazil came on to play,” he says. The journey home was much more relaxed – mostly because, according to Charlie “everyone was really happy, but totally and utterly exhausted.”

Girls allowed
São Paulo is another home to huge stadiums and team rivalries. Palmeirenses and Corinthians are notorious rivals, but it’s nothing compared to their hatred for São Paulo.

The São Paulo team, who have already won six national titles, own Morumbi stadium and are seen as elitist by their rivals, but the Swedish Carolina Corsello swears it was on the terraces of that famous stadium itself that she really fell in love with football, and ended up adopting São Paulo as her team. “I already liked football before, but the games in Brazil are really moving. The stadiums in Sweden don’t get that full and the fans don’t really sing the anthems .”

When she started going to watch the games, her boyfriend was a saopaulino (a São Paulo fan), but eventually she would go to games without him. The love affair ended, but her passion for the team didn’t. “I’ve been back to Brazil several times, and I always have to go to Morumbi; I have a flag and a whole São Paulo kit – these days I follow the team closer than my Swedish team, DIF,” she confesses. In relation to the constant association between violence and football fans, might it be disconcerting for her, being a woman and going to the stadium alone? Caroline says not: “I’ve never been in any danger. I’ve seen fights before, but nothing has ever happened to me. I’ve watched a few games in the VIP area, but it’s not the same thing. On the terraces you feel the excitement of the fans: the energy is incredible, everyone singing together, the huge flags swaying… Even if they’re not big games, you’re in Morumbi, which is a beautiful, big stadium. In the VIP area you don’t get to feel that emotion.”

The excitement even won over Charlotte Grace who, despite not being a huge football fan, insisted on watching a game whilst she was traveling in Brazil earlier this year. “I found the atmosphere and the sense of unity enchanting – and seeing a Brazilian game was high on my list of things to do. Despite the fact that England is the true home of football, Brazil adopted it and transformed it into something completely different from what we see back here. It’s more stylish. They play beautifully.” Charlotte chose to catch a game at Palestra Italia, the home of Palmeiras, and her most vivid memory was when the fans were jumping constantly, spinning t-shirts above their heads. “It’s a display of colour, an exciting performance which makes you feel alive. It’s impossible not to get excited.”

Beyond the Action

Naturally, when you visit a football stadium the match itself is bound to be the main entertainment, but it doesn’t have to be the only one of the occasion.  In several Brasilian stadiums, attractions are also found off the pitch, and we’ve outlined here a few helpful hints on what not to miss off any footballing itinerary.

Maracanã: inaugurated on the stadium’s 50th anniversary in 2000, the Hall of Fame boasts among its most famous boot prints those of Brasilian soccer aces Zico, Ronaldo and Kaká, the greatest striker the stadium has ever seen – with 333 goals – Pelé, as well as overseas players like Beckenbauer. Even girls can compare their footprints now that Marta got the first spot for a woman, after her gold-medal at the Pan-American Games in 2007;

Morumbi: the Santo Paulo Bar is the leading football bar of all Brasil’s stadiums.  With its outdoor decking area and unparalleled view of the ground you can watch matches from the bar itself, which also boasts several big-screens and a VIP area.

Pacaembu: covering an area of 6,900m², the Museum of Football tells the story of Brasilian football via its multimedia archive, and also bears an interesting architectural point: the museum’s roof is actually the terrace of the stadium.

Palestra Itália: in one corner of the home ground to the São Paulo team Palmeiras, the famous pizzeria, Papa Genovese, tends to get packed with fans both before and after the game. Another popular bite is the Jesus me chama (“Jesus calls me”) sandwich, sold from stalls around the ground – but watch out for those as they might not be the safest thing to eat!

Beira-Rio: located on the banks of the Guaíba River, the stadium offers the chance to witness a spectacular sunset. Also, being in Rio Grande do Sul, the Brasilian state most famous for its barbecues, you won’t want to miss Montana Grill, a traditional churrascaria gaúcha, in the nearby Parque Gigante;

Mineirao: inside the stadium you can buy tropeirão, a dish made from rice, beans, flour, beef, crackling and eggs – enjoy this feast of a picnic on the arquibancadas (terraces) to get a feel of true mineira cooking.

Play it safe
Here are some practical tips to make your stadium experience in Brazil a safe and fun one…

What to take:

-Cash (work out the costs for transport to and from the stadium, plus your ticket, and for food and drink – try as best you can not to take more than is absolutely necessary);
-Photo ID;
-Cap and sunglasses for daytime games (and don’t forget to apply lots of sun cream if you don’t want to leave with a farmer’s tan);

What NOT to take:

-Fancy cameras: the less attention it draws, the better (but keep an eye on it anyway);
-A wallet full of credit cards (only take one card, and only if absolutely necessary);
-Bags;
-Food or drink (you can get these both around and inside the stadium).

By Ana Brasil.
Picture by Mariana Rocha.

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