Fans relish Flamengo's Maracana homecoming

There is a special feel about a football-mad city on the day of a big game.

Flamengo Fans

Flamengo fans during their team's match against Corinthians at the Maracana Source: AAP

You can sense it in the streets hours before – people starting to gather wearing the colours of their team, an electric surge in the air, extra happy volume in mobile phone conversations.

All of this was present in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday when Flamengo, the city’s biggest club, finally came home.

With the Maracana stadium given over to the Olympics and Paralympics – and with the same fate befalling the Engenhao, Rio’s other major ground - there was nowhere for Flamengo to play.

They have spent the entire league season so far living a nomadic existence, staging their games all over the giant country.

This is less of a disadvantage for Flamengo than it would be for the vast majority of clubs.  They are a genuinely national institution, a hangover from the days when Rio was the capital, the radio would transmit their matches to all points of the compass.

Nevertheless, it is remarkable that a team in this situation would be fighting for the title.

Going into the home straight, Flamengo lie second.  They have a good home record – outstanding for a team without a home – and a wonderful away record – less surprising since in a sense all of their matches have been away.

But now they were back – and their supporters were desperate to see them. In recent weeks as many as 5,000 fans have gathered to see them off at the airport.

Now, with the Maracana rushed back into action a few days earlier than expected, they could watch the team take on Sao Paulo giants Corinthians - or at least those of them fortunate enough to get tickets could watch them.

By startling co-incidence, my very first game at the Maracana was also a clash between Flamengo and Corinthians, back in 1994.

It was a very different time.  This was well before the stadium went through a big reform to bring it up to scratch for the 2014 World Cup.

In 1994 the ground was little changed from the way it had been built some 44 years earlier.  The ticket prices were much cheaper than today.

But my big shock 22 years ago was that the huge stadium was so empty. This was a match between the two biggest teams in Brazil in the early stages of the season, with everyone still in contention for the title and yet only around 25,000 people had turned up.

There was no problem getting tickets back then.  You paid in cash at a box office and wandered round to a turnstile.  Now almost all of the sales happened online, with the vast majority going to members who pay a monthly fee.

Plenty of the old-time supporters have been squeezed out by price, and also because they have not caught on to the habit of buying over the internet.  But they have been more than replaced.

A total of just over 65,000 tickets were put on sale (the capacity is much smaller than it used to be), and they could probably have been sold five times over.

These days more of the stadium is covered by a roof, which locks in the noise.  It is a shame, though, that in the modern stadium so much of the pre-match noise is piped music.

I took my seat in the press box some two hours before kick off, keen to see the sense of occasion develop.  And the fans did try.

But whereas in the old days the atmosphere gathered pace organically, with the crowd coming together to form a mass, the contemporary conception seeks to drown all of this out with deafening music.

I missed the way the fans used to make their own music with drums and even brass sections.  And I also missed the spectacle a few supporters used to create by running across the front of the stand carrying and unfurling giant flags.

This time there was an attempt to create a mosaic – pieces of paper had been left on the seats to be held up together and form a message with a background of the club’s red and black colours.  But this top-down, organised stunt had been shoddily done, and the message was not clear enough to read.

There was something defiantly old school, though, about the build up.  Police resources were stretched, apparently by having to deal with fans trying to sneak in or others using false tickets.

There was just a thin police line to separate the rival supporters – a few coachloads of Corinthians fans had made the six-hour drive from Sao Paulo.

The line was too thin to deter some of the hardcore Corinthians elements from attempting an invasion, and some 35 minutes before kick off a fierce battle raged between police and visiting fans – a reminder of what football could be like before the sanitisation process, and of the dangerous passions that the game still generates.

The fighting was, perhaps, a reminder that the modernisation process has come with gains and losses.

In one sense the fans are more diversified – there are certainly more women these days. In another sense, there is less of a range, since some have been priced out of the stadium experience.

On one hand the contemporary level of organisation can seem stifling.  On the other it is refreshing to refer to an outbreak of violence in the ground as something of a surprise.

Some things stay constant.  The view of the Maracana as you approach the stadium, like some giant UFO which has landed to the north of the city centre, is as magical as ever, creating a healthy anticipation for the spectacle to come.

Sunday’s game was a pulsating 2-2 draw.  But it will not live in the memory nearly as much as the 1994 match – when Flamengo were a goal down at the interval but hit back to win 5-2.

It is always hard to compete with the first time, especially when it serves up seven goals.

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6 min read
Published 24 October 2016 at 4:17pm
By Tim Vickery