The history and legacy of the Maracanã

We are almost there. In just a few hours the final of the 2014 World Cup will begin. The match sees two football powerhouses face off for the right to be called world champions.

The final takes place in one of the most iconic arenas in football, the Maracanã. This famous old ground has gone through many transformations since being built in 1950 but it still maintains its status as one of the ‘homes of football’.


Housed in the Maracanã district of Rio de Janeiro the stadium was first built to host the World Cup in 1950. Despite Brazil losing the final that year to Uruguay the Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho or ‘Maracanã’ became an instant icon in the world of football.

Uruguay won the 1950 final 2-1.
Uruguay won the 1950 final 2-1.

“Down through its history, only three people have managed to silence the Maracana: the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.”
Alcides Ghiggia, scorer of Uruguay’s winning goal in the decisive final game of the 1950 FIFA World Cup.

The first thing that has to be said about the original Maracanã was the sheer size of the place. The attendance at the final in 1950 was officially recorded at an astonishing 174,000 but people who were there claimed that the actual figure was much higher, “there were some 220,000 people in the stadium that day”. The capacity of the original stadium made it the biggest in world and it was 43,000 larger than the previous record holder, Hampden Park in Glasgow. It has to be said that despite the huge achievement in building such an impressive arena the stadium wasn’t actually completed until 1963. In fact, the 1950 final was played despite there being no toilet facilities in the ground!

In the years after the 1950 World Cup the stadium became the venue for four domestic teams. Flamengo, Fluminese, Botafogo and Vasco de Gama have all called the Maracanã home and three of those clubs still do (Vasco no longer play there)

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In the 50s and 60s it was common to see crowds of up to 180,000 fill the ground and the stadium bore witness to many historic footballing moments. It was the ground where, on November 16th 1969, Pele scored his 1000th goal whilst playing for Santos against Vasco de Gama.

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Several notable concerts have been held at the Maracanã. Frank Sinatra sang in front of 180,000 people there to mark the stadium’s 30th anniversary. Madonna and Kiss played in front of their own mammoth crowds and Pope John Paul II led what is often considered the largest-ever Catholic mass there.


It is true that the stadium holds many special memories and has a place in footballing legend but the recent history of the Maracanã has been a little problematic and controversial.

Things started to go wrong in the Maracanã in 1992 when a stand collapsed killing three fans and injuring a further fifty. This tragedy led to much of the stadium being closed off and a decision was made to reduce the capacity and convert the ground into an all seater stadium.


This sparked years of delays and problems with the construction of the ‘new’ Maracanã. In 2000 a project was launched by the Brazilian government to increase the capacity back to over 100,000 but due to financial problems and setbacks the work had to be scaled down. This meant the stadium was re-opened with a reduced capacity of 87,000 a full seven years after initial construction began.

Further changes took place when Brazil won the rights to the World Cup and the Olympics in 2016. This has all meant that the ground has undergone three full renovations since the year 2000. Resulting in not only huge financial costs but also the destruction of local housing, open spaces and a museum dedicated to indigenous Brazilians.


David Goldblatt, author of a book about Brazilian football called “Futebol Nation,” referred to the new stadium as “architectural vandalism and cultural desecration.”

The current World Cup has seen everyday fans in Brazil being alienated because of rising ticket prices and stadiums that don’t really hold that Brazilian spirit we hear so much about and the Maracanã has been at the centre of all of that.

However there is no doubt that the Maracanã is a special place. For footballers and fans it has elevated itself to almost mythical status. When Germany and Argentina step out onto the pitch tonight all of the problems and issues surrounding its construction will be forgotten about as the spectacle takes over.

After tonight though the crowds will leave. What of the Maracanã then? What will its legacy be? It hosts the Olympic in two years so it still has a job to do but in the long-term the stadium will need to try to reignite that feeling it once had.

“The Maracana is a special place for all Brazilians, but especially for me. It was there that I scored my first goal for the Auriverde against Argentina, and also where I scored my 1000th professional goal years later. Some 1,700 people have played on that pitch and the aura of the place is extraordinary.” Pele