A special place in the heart

A special place in the heart
Fireworks explode over Maracana stadium during the trophy ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.

There is just something magical about the Maracana, as Brazilians affectionately call the football shrine that sits just inland of the Rio de Janeiro coastline.

Great football stadiums have an aura about them and the Maracana is no different.

Part of that has to do with the fact that unlike many modern stadiums that are situated outside cities, the arena is located right in the heart of Rio. That made walking to the stadium during the World Cup a treat.

Windows were lined with Brazil flags, families who wanted to join in the festivities looked out from their balconies while waving and tooting on horns.

There were fans from all over the world heading to the stadium. But on match day, they were one. Rival fans exchanged high fives and posed for pictures amid friendly teasing. It may have become tense when the action started but, in those moments before, there was peace and friendship in the world of football.

From miles away on game day, you could almost hear the Maracana rising like a sleeping giant from his slumber. First it stirred, with what sounded like murmuring as fans headed into the bowl. It grew to a growl as the match approached. And by kick-off, it let off a roar that let the entire city know it was awake.

With its iconic circular roof and spiralling concourses, it is a majestic sight. One can almost imagine the history that has taken place in the arena. It is home to the city's top sides including Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama.

Brazilians still talk of the day in 1969 when they saw Pele, playing for Santos, score the 1,000th goal of his career against Vasco in front of 65,157 spectators.

Twenty years later, Zico scored his final goal for Flamengo, taking his goal tally at the stadium to 333, a record that still stands. But it also holds some bad memories for Brazilians.

When they hosted the 1950 World Cup, 200,000 of them were present for the final against Uruguay. Then, a league format decided the winner and Brazil entered the match needing a draw to be crowned World Cup winners for the first time. But despite taking the lead, Brazil eventually lost 1-2.

Brazilians had hoped that that day 64 years ago would be avenged during this World Cup.

That day never came. In fact the Brazil team did not even play one game in Rio, leading many to wonder if organisers had overlooked the importance of the Selecao playing at the spiritual home of the Brazilian game.

Yet Brazil's absence did little to affect the impact the stadium still had on the tournament.

Seven matches were played at the Maracana and two of Brazil 2014's most memorable goals were scored here.

James Rodriguez's wonder-strike for Colombia against Uruguay will be played over and over again on YouTube. Mario Goetze's game-winning volley for Germany in the World Cup final against Argentina is a close second. Both were a celebration of technique, chesting to control the ball before strikes so clean, they were goals even before they hit the back of the net.

The 64-year-old Maracana is truly a rare breed in an era dominated by modern stadiums and its days are far from numbered.

In two years, it will host the Olympic Games where more memories will be made and history written. I was just happy to witness but a small part of one chapter during this World Cup.

This article was first published on July 15, 2014.
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