All for kicks

Last Updated : 21 June 2014, 13:48 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2014, 13:48 IST

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The Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro is a great field not just for football games, but for wagers, fandom and riveting football talk, PRakash Philipose writes...

Imagine having an evening to yourself in Rio de Janeiro. It was with trepidation that I approached my hotel manager for suggestions he might have —  a night club or a Samba show? He asked, “Would you like to see a football match at the Maracanã?” I readily agreed.

At seven that evening, a coach picked me up from the hotel. We were about 45 people — Brazilians visiting from Sao Paulo, a Dutch couple, two Norwegian men, a couple of Japanese — a mixed group of wide-eyed football lovers who were enthusiastic to see a bola, as football is called in Brazil, in the most famous football ground in the world, Temple of World Soccer — the Estádio do Maracanã.

Bets all around

Two guides were in charge of us. As we proceeded to the ground, they gave us a brief introduction to the stadium. Build in 1950 to host the World Cup, it was the biggest football ground in the world, designed to seat 2,00,000 fans. When the World Cup was played, it was unfinished, but the FIFA allowed it to go on. Brazil lost to Uruguay 2-1, to the shock of the entire nation; suicides followed.

The stadium is almost circular and known for its luxury, functionality and security. Two large, external flights of stairs connect the upper tiers with the surrounding park, which ensures a fast evacuation of the stadium.

In 1992, the upper portion of the stadium collapsed and was later converted to a ‘seating only’ stadium of 90,000 seats. At the entrance, there is a statue of Edison Avantes do Nascimento, more popular as Pele.

They explained that the match we were going to watch was between a local Rio football club and a visiting club from Sao Paulo. In a tradition that I was familiar, they warned that our seats were on the side of the Rio club enclosure and therefore, one should not show any expression if the opposing team was threatening to score a goal.

If you did, there was a good chance that you would be booed, or worse, hit by a wayward missile of some kind.

Then the pièce de résistance of the evening. A small, simple bet on who would be the winner. For five Brazilian Reals you could predict the winner, but the clever bit was that, you also had to predict the exact score.

The guides would collect money, declare the amount collected, and if there was a winner, hand over the money to him or her; and if there was no winner, they would keep it!

The bus-load of enthusiastic football lovers knew the bet was loaded against them, but can you expect them to be reasonable when it comes to their favourite sport? The bus exploded into a raucous discussion.

It was clear that the fans knew their teams’ strengths and weaknesses, even though this was a second string club match, not Brazil’s best. The guides announced the amount collected and the scores that were bet.

We arrived at the stadium located in the neighbourhood of Maracanã, from where it gets its name. There was a crowd waiting outside. The noisy gathering enjoyed the snack variety — like salsichao, meat on a stick; churros, batter rolled in sugar — from street vendors, as they waited for the gates to open at 9 pm.

It was clear that the tickets that the guides had given did not tally with the price we had paid to the coach operator. But they were nowhere to be found! We took our seats on plastic chairs, but this did not deter the enthusasism. Everyone was determined to have a good time.

Inside infomation

It is from the inside that you realise the enormous size of the stadium. It is built as a huge amphitheatre with different stands priced differently.

The turf is lovely and green, beautiful under flood lights.  The ground was beginning to fill up. The noise level was rising, the team supporters began their chant, huge team flags were waved around, drums were beaten, and bright torches lit.

The teams came on to the field. The referee blew the whistle and the game was on. Even at this level the quality of football was outstanding.

No rough play, just able control of the ball and timely anticipation. The crowd booed the fouls and acknowledged every good move. The shouts of encouragement increased as one side approached the goal of the other, followed by a huge sigh if the scoring opportunity was missed.

A goal was scored, one half of the ground erupted — fans stood, drums exploded, flags were waved furiously. The other half of the ground was deadly quite. The final score was 2-1 in favour of the Sao Paulo team.

When we got back to the coach, we found two sad-faced guides. A fan had predicted the exact score of the winning team. They handed over the money reluctantly.

Never mind, they made a small killing giving us inferior seats! The coach proceeded to drop off the fans to their hotels. The winner, when dropped at his hotel ran inside. You do not take any chances in Rio at midnight, especially if you are carrying a pocketful of cash.

Come to Brazil to understand what the game of football means. Will Brazil win the World Cup this year? I do not know. This I know, the passion of the whole nation will be behind its team.

Published 21 June 2014, 13:48 IST

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