Two Brazilian cities, two games, halfway to the 2014 World Cup
Maracanã, site of the 2014 World Cup final, is being refurbished to hold 80,000
Brazil's prep for the World Cup and Olympics has affected its domestic league
Ronaldinho, at 32, is still a huge draw, evidenced by masks bearing his likeness
RIO DE JANEIRO -- On the belvedere atop Corcovado mountain, tourists crowd the railings for a God's-eye view of the world's most beautiful cityscape. Standing under one Rio icon, the open-armed statue of Christ the Redeemer, they aim their phone cameras at another: Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), the granite outcropping that resembles a giant cat crouching at the edge of Guanabara Bay.
Off to the left, though, is a Rio landmark of equal significance, at least to futebol fans: Maracanã, the largest stadium in Brazil and the site of the 2014 World Cup final.
Even from as far away as Corcovado you can see the cranes poking out of Maracanã's huge oval. The stadium, like many others around Brazil, is closed for renovations to meet FIFA specifications for the quadrennial blowout of the world's most popular sport. Maracanã, which hosted the 1950 World Cup final, is being refurbished not only for the 2014 World Cup but also for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Its roof is being extended to cover all of the seats; a new grandstand, similar to the one at the Bernabéu in Madrid, is being built to hold more than a third of the projected capacity of 76,000 fans (or 82,000, depending on which report you read); new access ramps are being constructed; and new locker rooms, luxury suites, media facilities, restaurants, shops and refreshment stands are being put in. The project, which began two years ago and will cost an estimated $300 million to $400 million, might be finished by the end of this year. In any event it must be ready for the 2013 Confederations Cup, the two-week World Cup shakedown tournament whose final will be held at Maracanã on June 30.
Meanwhile the stadium's usual tenants, the first-division clubs Flamengo and Fluminense, have been playing their home games in the Engenhão, a 45,000-seat stadium to the north of Maracanã. The Engenhão is the permanent home of yet another first-division team, Botafogo, which makes for complicated scheduling, not to mention considerable wear on the field. The grass is so faded and full of divots that early in August Flamengo insisted on playing a home game at a stadium in the town of Volta Redonda, about 65 miles northwest of Rio.
That's one of the downsides of the run-up to 2014. Another is that some Brazilian fans can't be bothered to make the slog to their team's temporary home, even for an important game. That, at least, was the case on Aug. 12, when Fluminense, in third place in the standings and just one victory from second, hosted the São Paulo club Palmeiras at the Engenhão. An anemic crowd of 8,536 showed up.
To be fair, it was Sunday evening, and it was Father's Day in Brazil, when many fans presumably had family obligations, and the opponent was a hapless team struggling to stay out of the relegation zone. But some Fluminense supporters, among the most affluent in Rio, are also said to be loath to drive 40 minutes from their comfortable enclaves in southern Rio, near the city's famous beaches, to the subúrbios, which is what Brazilians call less-safe lower-middle-class neighborhoods. More salt-of-the-earth fans of other clubs have been known to refer to Fluminense supporters as pó de arroz (rice powder), an old-fashioned cosmetic. In other words, girly men.
The long block between the Engenhão's parking lot and the stadium is a gauntlet of improvised tents and stands selling soft drinks, sausages and red-and-green Fluminense flags and shirts. More important, they sell beer, and fans knock back one or two or three before going into the arena. Alcoholic beverages can't be purchased inside Brazilian stadiums, to the chagrin of FIFA and of World Cup sponsor Budweiser -- which, it happens, is owned by a Belgian-Brazilian brewing conglomerate. A half-dozen military policemen stand guard along the street with barking German shepherds straining at their leashes.
Inside the arena, more police and dogs line the track that surrounds the field. The Engenhão was built for the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio, whose success helped persuade FIFA and the IOC that Brazil was capable of pulling off the 2014-2016 double. The Pan Am Games track's lanes are still marked, and there are sand pits for the jumps and circles for the shot put and discus throw. The Engenhão won't host the World Cup, but it will be the site of track and field events at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.
Meanwhile it's a fine place to watch a soccer game, especially from a $20 seat in the airy upper deck during the mild subequatorial winter. Fluminense's torcida organizada, or organized supporters, make a wonderful racket, pounding samba drums, chanting, singing and whistling. They wave giant flags, including one bearing the face of Fred, Fluminense's star striker, over a slogan that translates roughly as "Fred's Gonna Get You." Only problem is, down on the field, Fred's not getting the ball. Palmeiras' defense hangs tough and even goes on the attack, with center back Thiago Heleno and right back Artur each bouncing a shot off Fluminense's goalpost. The game devolves into a defensive struggle, frustrating the most vocal Flu fans in the upper deck, some of whom remind their heroes loudly and profanely that the purpose of the game is to move forward.
Seven minutes from the end, Fluminense finally breaks down Palmeiras' resistance. Flu midfielder Jean finds the ball in a scrum in front of the net and pounds it into the left corner. The crowd explodes. Better yet, Palmeiras, now all but sure to drop into the relegation zone, mounts a furious comeback, and the final minutes are everything a game should be, fast and dangerous and exciting, until the final whistle draws a collective sigh of relief from the home fans. A couple of seats over from me, the man who had shouted the filthiest curses looks at the night sky and crosses himself like a choirboy.
In May, work on six of Brazil's 12 World Cup stadiums was so far behind schedule that it was feared they might not be finished in time for the tournament, according to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. This, of course, is the kind of thing that was reported about South Africa's venues before the 2010 World Cup, and the Brazilian government insisted in April that at all the stadiums would be ready, although work on only five of them was more than 50 percent completed at the time. More recently, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said he was satisfied with the construction progress after a three-day inspection trip in August.
Still, there's no denying that labor strikes and budget overruns have slowed the progress of renovation or construction at many stadiums, and the estimated overall cost of the work has more than tripled since Brazil was awarded the Cup in 2007, to $3.68 billion, according to a Reuters report in April. Much of that cost will be borne by the Brazilian taxpayer.
Not so at the the Mineirão, Brazil's second largest stadium, in Belo Horizonte, about 225 miles north of Rio. The venue, which will host three games during the Confederations Cup and six (including a semifinal) at the World Cup, will be ready in late December, and it will cost the government very little, according to Severiano Braga, the operations manager for Minas Arena, the private company that's overhauling the stadium. Leading a tour of the Mineirão's 50-acre site in mid-August, Severiano (everyone in Brazil goes by his first name, from the president to soccer players to cab drivers) explains that Minas Arena, a consortium of three construction companies, negotiated a 27-year concession with the government of Minas Gerais, the state of which Belo Horizonte is the capital, to renovate and run the Mineirão.
Minas Arena is spending about $320 million, some 95 percent of the total cost, on the two-year refurbishment and will recoup its investment over the quarter-century it will operate the resulting multipurpose site, which will include not only the soccer field but also shops, restaurants, food stands and outdoor venues for everything from concerts to art fairs to skating competitions.
Built in 1965, the Mineirão once crammed 100,000 fans into its standing-room grandstands and 4,000 cars into an outdoor parking lot built for 2,800. What remains of the old stadium is mostly its landmarked façade, which has been sanded and stained a darker shade of gray.
Inside, the field has been removed, and the stadium's dirt floor is occupied by four giant cranes, a cement mixer, a backhoe, flatbed trucks and milling workers in orange coveralls. A total of 3,000 laborers work on the project, Severiano said, 1,000 of them living in the Mineirinho, the adjacent arena for volleyball and other indoor sports. Overhead, part of the Mineirão's translucent roof extension, which will cover all seats, is already in place. The grass has already been purchased for the new field, which will be lowered by 10 feet to improve sightlines for the fans, and so have the seats, which will reduce the stadium's capacity to 64,000, including luxury suites. The press will have not only its own seats but also its own entrance, elevator, bar and bathrooms.
Outside, the concrete floor of the new esplanade that will surround the stadium is in place, 60 yards at its widest. From it you can see the Belo Horizonte skyline in the distance and Pampulha Lake nearby. This is where the shows and other extra-soccer activities will take place, making the Mineirão the kind of place where, Minas Arena hopes, fans will want to arrive hours before a game and linger afterward, and where even non-soccer fans will want to come for a meal, entertainment or just to promenade. Eighty percent of the 2,800 parking spots will be under the esplanade, leaving the outdoor space open for, among other facilities, an amphitheater capable of seating more than 30,000 people. The complex will be further beautified, Severiano says, by the planting of about 400 trees.