Modernizing Brazil bulldozes its slums and soccer's shrine

For Brazilians, Maracana has always been the people's stadium, built purposely right in the middle of some of Rio's poorest neighborhoods. Now it is being "gentrified" for the World Cup and Brazil's poor are feeling left out of the celebrations.

To host the World Cup in 2014, Brazil is rebuilding Maracana, the 'temple of soccer'

Macarana stadium, sited between Turano and Mangueira slums, in May 2010 before the renovations began. At least $300 million US is being spent on building a smaller, more modern stadium. See bottom of page for current status. (Reuters)

With fewer than 800 days to go before Brazil plays host to the next World Cup, the country is trying to reassure skeptical foreigners that it will be ready.

This week, it released a report saying that construction on the dozen new stadiums it is readying for the games is right on schedule.

Work on the country's most iconic venue — Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium, which will host the final match — is 39 per cent complete, according to the progress report.

But the pace of Maracana's construction was never the problem here. The issue was why touch the country's shrine to soccer at all. Why mess with its magic, and dismantle all that history?

For Brazilians, Maracana has always been known as the people's stadium. It was purposely built right in the middle of some of Rio's poorest neighborhoods — instead of at the rich outskirts of the city.

But now, critics say Maracana's redesign is being used as an excuse to oust the very people it was designed to attract in the first place, Brazil's downtrodden, soccer-mad poor.

Demolishing the favelas

Eomar Freitas lives in what is left of Favela do Metro and you can see Maracana from his roof, only 500 metres away.

For the past 30 years, this favela — what North Americans would call a shantytown — has been home to about 600 poor families.

A woman and her daughter walk away from the Pinheirinho favela in San Paulo, Brazil, in January 2012. Other residents, resisting an eviction order, set fire to some of the buildings. (Reuters)

But it was never legalized, so the city's wrecking ball destroyed almost every dwelling.

Freitas' skinny four-storey house sticks out of the piles of rubble. If he and his mother hadn't refused to leave, his home would be rubble too.

"Our conditions here are precarious," he says. "The city cut off the electricity, the water and I've been broken into six times." Thieves took the air conditioner, the window frame and the copper wiring.

But Freitas is holding on, waiting for a buy-out from the authorities and proper relocation, which the city keeps promising but still hasn't delivered.

More than half the neighbourhood is still waiting as well.

When it comes to the forced cleanup of its many favelas, which Brazil is undertaking as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup of soccer and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Freitas says he is "revolted, really revolted" at the way it has destroyed so many lives.

But ask him about Maracana and he breaks into a smile. He loves the beautiful old stadium, which he calls "a temple" to soccer.

"I'm not mad at Maracana for all these humiliations," he says. "I'm mad at the politicians."

History of heartbreak

The storied stadium was built for the last World Cup Brazil hosted in 1950, when it was meant to be the pitch where Brazil would hoist the trophy.

Brazil's powerhouse team didn't even have to win their last match. They only had to tie the game.

On that July day in 1950, Maracana was packed to its soaring rafters with more than 200,000 mostly Brazilian fans, when tiny Uruguay upset their hosts, winning 2 to 1.

Locals who were at that game say you could have heard a pin drop in the stunned silence that followed.

A new word was born to describe one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history — "maracanazo," which you can still hear among soccer fans today.

Still, despite its heartbreaking debut, Maracana has become the most beloved soccer venue in Brazil.   It's the beating heart and soul of futebol, as they call the game here, and no serious player's career is complete without having played on its pitch.

"It's part of our memory," says anthropologist Marcos Alvito. "If you ask almost any Carioca [the term for residents of Rio] when was the first time you went to Maracana, everybody knows.

"It's just like, if you allow me, when was the first time you had sexual relations?"

A fan's lament

A year ago, when the controversial demolitions began, Alvito started Brazil's first Fans' Association, devoted to the game and the rights of its passionate supporters.

Flamengo coach Andrade (left) looks on as former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da Silva helps him celebrate the country's national soccer league trophy in December 2009. (Reuters)

It came into being on the steps of Maracana, which was already closed for the World Cup renovations, and one of its goals was to protect the publicly owned stadium from being turned into a generic sports arena with box seating for the well-to-do.

But Alvito now feels that it is too late for that.

When Maracana re-opens it will have many fewer seats and fancier surroundings, a nod perhaps to Brazil's growing oil wealth and international stature.  

The standing-room only section, for the poorest fans, is already gone. The cheap open-seating known as "the bench" is also being gutted. All to be replaced by numbered seats and boxed suites, far out of the price range of the average soccer fan that Maracana was built for. The kind of fan who made the place come alive, according to former players.

Maracana was shared by Rio de Janeiro's four main soccer teams. But it's really known as the home turf of the wildly popular Flamengo team and its millions of fans.

Jorge Luis Andrade, a former star player with Flamengo and a winning coach (for a while), remembers the roar of the crowd when 160,000-plus fans filled the stadium.

"Maracana will never hold that many people again," he laments. "It will lose its enchantment, its glamour and will become like any other normal, modern stadium."

As Andrade sees it, the poorer fans will lose their space "and our game will be 'elitistized' even more,"

And so will the entire city, says professor Alvito.

"What's happening here is a shame," he says. FIFA, the world soccer body, "is being used as the excuse to build the new monster that is Maracana.

"But it can't be blamed on FIFA. The politicians are destroying entire neighbourhoods to put in more hotels and shopping centres. So the city will belong to fewer and fewer and richer and richer people."

Some say that is progress. Others call it gentrification, the kind that is not only affecting their beloved stadium and national sport, but also pricing so many right out of this increasingly expensive city.

Labourers work on reconstructing the Maracana soccer stadium in Rio in March 2012. (Reuters)