Maracana turns into war zone

MARACANA - Fifa certainly delivered on its militant promise. The Maracana feels like a post-apocalyptic movie set; a land that time and people forgot.

On match days, Brazil's most spiritual sporting venue turns into a drab, foreboding militarised zone.

The Beautiful Game's natural home, where Pele scored his 1,000th goal and Zico his last for Flamengo, has been reduced to a concrete prison; nobody gets in or out without the approval of heavily armed guards.

Like petulant teenagers, Fifa organisers do not respond particularly well to criticism.

When 87 Chile fans stormed security fences at the Maracana media centre in a futile attempt to see their team play Spain in Group B last week, Fifa had to respond.

So they brought out armour-plated, machine gun-carrying, black-clad soldiers wielding the proverbial sledgehammers to swat a mildly distracting fly.

Watching hundreds of special officers turn oblivious children away from various parts of the Maracana complex is the most dispiriting image.

Every road around the football amphitheatre was closed a full six hours before the France-Ecuador game yesterday morning (Singapore time).

Intimidating lines of ridiculously armed men and women in black berets or helmets blocked roads, side streets and all entry points to the stadium, enforcing an exclusion zone that traversed the entire perimeter.

Visitors who were foolish or naive enough to take a taxi to the Maracana - including me - were ordered to stop about a kilometre away from the stadium, forcing families to suffer the long, exposed walk in the midday Rio sunshine.

Despite my media credentials and the help of a kindly traffic volunteer who had sympathised with my innocent predicament, armed police turned me away from their human blockades twice, the second time rather forcefully when I pleaded my case in desperation.

Fifa and the Brazilian authorities spout a slogan before every game, espousing the sporting values of the World Cup and championing its Corinthian spirit.

Around Estadio do Maracana, a snarling Checkpoint Charlie greets spectators.

Chile Mishap

After the embarrassing Chile mishap, outraged Fifa organisers wiped the egg from their fuming faces and doubled down.

The number of police officers around the Maracana rose from 600 to 3,100, with more than 1,100 stewards in place for matches.

Last week, Rio's military police commander Jose Luis Castro told the media: "We are going to establish an extra isolation cordon with mobile fences in the Maracana's sensitive zones and mobilise 600 police in those zones."

Fences, zones, cordons and isolation; these are the imprisoning nouns of restriction and repression. They are not the words of sporting spectacle, but exclusion.

Besides, the measures appeared counter-productive in any case.

Like riot police shepherding protestors into a containable corner, the men in black herded the Ecuadorean and French supporters into a smallish bar outside the Maracana.

In the oppressive Rio heat, myopic uniformed officers had forced rival sets of drinking, sweating, combustible fans into a single venue that wasn't big enough for the both of them.

Their behaviour proved exemplary.

Fans mingled freely, sharing beers and selfies and playfully mocking the belligerence of their omnipresent armed guards.

Holidaymakers are not accustomed to having their bars surrounded by machine guns, but supporters shrugged off the Orwellian undertones.

World Cup organisers tweeted about encapsulating the true spirit of the Beautiful Game and they stumbled upon it ironically, by rounding up men, women and children and treating them like sheep.

A similar mood pervaded the Maracana during the game. Fans partied, while pernickety Fifa blazers dashed down stairwells to repeat unknown Fifa security edicts, forever trapped in discipline-master mode.

A European woman in a Fifa blazer ordered me to stop recording phone videos.

She threatened to take away my phone and cancel my media accreditation, in effect ending my World Cup on the spot - for making a fan's video of the Maracana.

Her tone was condescending; her demeanour an intolerable mix of arrogance and ego.

She spoke to me like a child.

In a laboratory somewhere, Fifa must incubate suited executives with blonde pony-tails and neutral accents to enforce their temporary annexation of a new country every four years.

Now it's Brazil's turn.

Residents are told where they can eat, drink and walk on match days (and at fan fests throughout the tournament).

They are even told what they can't eat and drink - my non-official drinks and snacks have been removed from my bag by overzealous security guards twice now.

They presumably assumed that I was capable of death by chocolate.

For many, a trip to the Maracana is akin to a religious experience; a chance to bow at the altar of Brazil's finest artists.

The grand old stadium should represent the physical and spiritual embodiment of our football dreams.

But the world outside the concrete behemoth belongs in a dystopian nightmare.

This article was first published on June 27, 2014.
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