Maracana fate in limbo as post-World Cup politics threaten iconic venue
It is one of the greatest sights on the planet for football fans -- emerging from the underground station and gazing across the ramp at the Maracana stadium, it looks as if some giant UFO has come to land to the north of Rio de Janeiro's city centre.
But if it really is a flying saucer, then the aliens would appear to have given up and gone away, leaving the stadium to the roaming cats. This great icon of the global game, built for the 1950 World Cup and rebuilt expensively for the 2014 edition, now lies idle and in a pitiful state. The grass is dying in the summer heat. Windows are broken, some 6,000 seats are missing. Computers and televisions are being stolen from the offices. And football officials in Rio have had to call on police to prevent "the destruction of the Maracana."
The air of decay might lead one to believe that the stadium has been abandoned for ages. But it staged league games as recently as December and a charity match in front of a full house three days before the new year. The current state of this hallowed ground provides an abject lesson in how quickly structures can deteriorate, and in how much care and resources are needed to maintain a stadium of this size.
But the lack of maintenance is only a symptom of a wider problem, one which sheds light on the defects of the recent Brazilian cycle of mega-events. There was so much talk of legacy in theory. In practice there has been so much waste. The viability of some of the stadiums built for the 2014 World Cup was always questionable. What use would there be for the arenas in Brasilia, Manaus, Cuiaba, Natal? Wasn't the ground in Recife a long way out of town? But the Maracana, surely that would be OK. Surely a rebuilt stadium in the very heartland of Brazilian football would be a winner.
Yet even here, the problems have piled up. After nearly half a billion dollars of public money was spent rebuilding the stadium, it was handed over to a private consortium, Maracana SA, who intended to run it at a profit. They have been unable to do so. In part this is because the structural problems of Brazilian football have not been addressed. There is now an uneasy mix between 21st century stadiums and a 19th century calendar. The Rio state championship, which runs from the end of January to May, simply does not throw up enough games with sufficient appeal to fill the stadium on anything near a regular basis.
Then there was the wave of protests in 2013, a year before the World Cup, when millions all over the country were out on the streets bemoaning the amount of money being spent on a football tournament. Under such political pressure, the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the historic owner of the stadium, retroactively changed the terms of the deal. Maracana SA had intended to tear down a swimming facility and an athletics track housed inside the stadium complex. However, they were prevented from doing this, a significant factor, they argue, in their accumulated losses of over $50 million.
Maracana SA want out -- and here is where the problems really start piling up. They have no interest in carrying out maintenance and argue that it is not their responsibility. The stadium was handed over to the Rio Olympic Committee for last year's Games -- with a contractual obligation to return it in the same state as that in which they took it over. This, also, has not happened. The Rio Olympic Committee admit that all its obligations have not been met -- yet. And so there is an impasse. It is hard for the Rio state government to step in, because it finds itself in a self-declared financial calamity and has yet to pay all of its workers their salary for November.
The great stadium, then, is caught up in the middle of the forces swirling around Brazil's current crisis. In addition to the economic and political problems, there is also the question of corruption. Maracana SA is 95 percent owned by Odebrecht, a giant construction company at the centre of the so-called "Car Wash" kickback scandal. According to an Odebrecht official, then-Rio state governor Sergio Cabral charged a 5 percent kickback on the Maracana reconstruction. Cabral was arrested in November and is currently awaiting trial.
The idea behind the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics was to show off a new, booming, thriving Brazil. Images of the Maracana in its current state show just how wide of the target that aim proved to be.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.