It has hosted two World Cup finals and the first Olympic Games on South American soil, but the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro is at the heart of a disagreement that has seen it fall into a state of disrepair.
It was only six months ago that athletes from around the world were parading around the iconic stadium as part of the closing ceremony of Rio 2016. Who could forget Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arriving in the form of Super Mario as the Olympic torch was passed on to Japan? More than 70,000 people crammed in under a torrential storm to see the historic moment.
Fast-forward to early 2017 and the scene is almost unrecognisable. The giant arena is currently closed off and its operators, Maracanã S.A., have accused the State of Rio de Janeiro and the Rio 2016 Organising Committee of a breach of contract.
It is a bitter dispute that can be traced back to March of last year, when Maracanã S.A. officially handed over the keys to the State and the Olympic Committee to prepare, and subsequently host, the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Whilst this was done in good faith at the time, Maracanã S.A. claim that a number of stipulations were not met, and the stadium was returned to them after the global showcase in a shoddy condition. It has been made clear that they will refuse to take it back in such a state.
“It’s like when you rent a house to someone and the person throws a big party, makes the best possible use of the place. But when it’s time to return the property, it should look exactly as it was,” Maracanã S.A. spokesman Daelcio de Freitas told the BBC.
The Olympic Committee refute this however, insisting that whilst there were some issues to be resolved in the stadium, they were not a priority for the State of Rio de Janeiro, which is struggling to stay afloat amid huge debts, and were not enough to prevent Maracanã S.A. from taking back control.
It can be hard to argue against a sense that the condition is worrisome, and it has suffered further by looting and vandalism as the stadium stands empty. Seats have been torn out and windows smashed, whilst fire extinguishers and wiring are just some of the materials stolen.
Meanwhile, a bronze bust of Mario Filho, the iconic journalist whom the stadium was officially named after, was also taken. The home of Brazilian football does not even have running water and electricity anymore, after provider Light cut off its service due to mounting unpaid bills, said to be in excess of R$3 million (£770,000).
On the field, the lack of care has led to worms destroying much of the grass, and it could be a while before football can be played on the surface, regardless of whether the ownership situation is resolved.
Indeed, it is on the footballing side that the real tragedy of the whole situation is felt. This marvellous location filled with sporting history deserves to showcase matches once more, but this seems like little more than a pipedream at this stage. It is much to the detriment of its usual tenants, Rio de Janeiro’s rival club teams, Flamengo and Fluminense.
Neither club has been able to play at their home ground since the conclusion of the 2015 season, aside from a sole Flamengo clash against Corinthians in October 2016. Instead, both sides have travelled across the state of Rio and beyond in search of suitable stadia, which is hardly ideal for any team looking to build momentum and consistency.
The scant disregard for fans is even more telling, with Fluminense in particular often having to play their games in the state of Minas Gerais. Flamengo, meanwhile, have travelled as far as Natal, at a distance of 2,500km from Rio, and have fulfilled many of their fixtures in other states.
It seems almost unfathomable that a stadium as iconic as Maracanã can be left to rot whilst two of Brazil’s most famous clubs, as well as their legions of supporters, are forced into makeshift accommodation.
Indeed, it has been argued that Flamengo’s push for the league title last season was severely hampered by their lack of a home ground, a fortress that they could build. In the end, they fell short of Palmeiras, and the Maracanã situation may well have been a factor.
Tourism has also been hit hard by the situation. A must-see for any visitor to Rio, the Maracanã has always been a popular stop off for tourists and football fans looking for a taste of the home of Brazilian football, and the glamour that is so often associated with it.
Whereas tourists and locals could once enjoy an extensive tour and see so many relics and artefacts of Brazilian football’s rich history, this window into what ought to be a great source of pride for the city and the country has been closed off to visitors for almost a year.
Few can argue with the history of this site right in the heart of the ‘Marvellous City’. It was here that Mario Gotze tapped home in extra-time to see Germany defeat Argentina and lift their fourth World Cup in 2014. Brazil suffered its own World Cup heartache in 1950, as unfancied Uruguay inflicted a 2-1 defeat on their hosts in the final, in what would forever be lamented as the Maracanaço.
It was a match that broke the world record for the highest attendance at a football stadium, as around 210,000 spectators crammed in to see a tie decided by Alcides Ghiggia’s late strike for Uruguay.
Similarly, the Maracanã was the scene of Pelé’s Gol de Placa, which helped his Santos side to a 3-1 win over Fluminense in 1961, so called because it was said to be worthy of a plaque. With so much history, it becomes all the more pressing to find a resolution and preserve this iconic venue.
This season was supposed to be the year in which the Carioca clubs returned home; a single year away was fair exchange for their city hosting the greatest show on Earth. Sadly, the words were empty and the promises not kept.
Attempts to get the stadium back into a suitable condition for matches has thus far proved futile, and it appears that Flamengo and Fluminense must brace themselves for at least another campaign on the road. For lovers of football and its great history, the mistreatment of the Maracanã ought to be a cause for despair.