Neglected Maracana and fan violence reveal Brazil's dark underbelly
On Wednesday, Fluminense host Rio de Janeiro rivals Botafogo in the city's giant Maracana stadium. It is the 20th game the ground has staged this year -- and no one knows when the next one will be.
One of football's most iconic venues, the Maracana was built for the 1950 World Cup, and expensively rebuilt for the same tournament in 2014. It has since been handed over to a private consortium to administer. They are desperate to get out. Changes to the terms of the contract, they allege, make it impossible to turn a profit. The local authorities -- in this case the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro -- are deep in financial crisis and seem at a loss to know what to do with the stadium.
Two of the local clubs -- Fluminense and the giant Flamengo -- might be interested in taking it on, but it appears that another tender process is likely, with another private consortium stepping in. In the meantime, the stadium is being used on an ad hoc basis, with the clubs needing to draw a crowd of at least 30,000 to avoid losing money. Flamengo have started to stage their games in a small ground with no mass transport links -- a scandal in itself after all of the money spent on the last World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Meanwhile, Fluminense have begun using a tiny old ground some ways from the city centre. Bearing in mind that around $400 million of public money was used to rebuild the Maracana, the fact that it is being used so rarely is little short of a disgrace. It is also part of the background to an even bigger disgrace -- the violent scenes last Saturday at the Vasco da Gama vs. Flamengo derby that left a fan shot dead.
The game took place at Vasco's Estadio Sao Januario, not far away from the Maracana. Sao Januario is rich in history. When it was built in 1927 it was South America's biggest stadium. Vasco are proud of it and rightly so -- its construction helped seal the place of black players in the Brazilian game. Vasco, a team from Rio's working class north zone, had emerged strongly as a side that fielded poor white and black players in an era when the game was dominated by the elite. They suffered all kinds of barriers -- one of which was the obligation to have a stadium in order to continue participating in the Rio first division. So they clubbed together to build their home. In recent times, the club has worked hard to win the right to stage big derby matches there. With all of the problems being faced by the Maracana, that right was granted for Saturday's game. It was an error. The match should not have been allowed to go ahead. The problems were depressingly predictable.
Vasco against Flamengo is Rio's most hotly disputed derby, the so-called "classic of the multitudes". It is the game that most worries the security forces. Aging and badly located, Sao Januario offers more problems than the Maracana from a policing point of view. On this occasion, the situation was made worse by the result of the game -- Flamengo won 1-0, which, on Vasco's turf, drove a section of the home fans into a frenzy. A succession (at least 12, it appears) homemade bombs were thrown. The Flamengo players had to wait half an hour before they could safely leave the field -- even with a long inflatable tunnel there for their protection. There were a number of attempted pitch invasions, and as the police weighed in with tear gas and pepper spray, a riot developed in the stands and in the cramped streets around the stadium. For their own safety, the Flamengo fans were held behind in the ground for two hours while battle raged in the streets - ultimately bringing about the death of a 26-year-old fan, shot, it would seem, by the police.
In the aftermath, the CBF, Brazil's football association, declared that the next games at Sao Januario would have to take place behind closed doors. The sports justice system then went further, banning matches at the stadium altogether for the time being. For those acquainted with the history of the hooliganism problem in England, the situation in Brazil brings two extra challenges.
One is the degree of complicity between the clubs and the thugs in their organised groups of supporters, which in many cases are increasingly becoming a front for criminal activity. The English clubs were perhaps guilty of negligence in the 1970s and 80s. Many Brazilian clubs have deep relationships with the thugs -- a consequence of the social club structure in which the president is an elected position and politics is continually taking place inside the club. Thugs might be given free tickets, or have their travel costs paid. In this case, Rio police spokesman Ivan Blaz said that there is a suspicion that members of organised supporter groups were working for the club in a security capacity, and facilitated the entry of the homemade bombs into the stadium.
The other problem is the level of violence -- much more barbarous than anything seen in England during the days of rampant hooliganism. The police are armed, and guns are widespread. Earlier this year outside another Rio stadium a fan was killed after being stabbed with a barbecue skewer. But the problem of social violence in Brazil is a question that goes well beyond football.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.