Paradise. It’s about 10 metres long and five metres wide, about the size of your living room, and resides bang in the middle of the most populated area of the most populated city in South America.
Just outside the jurisdiction of Copacabana is a dimpled hillock. As you rest your foot on the mound’s cleft, Rio surrounds you in all its grandeur.
If you face north and look up, you’ll be blessed by a granite Christ, all 30 metres of him towering over a 700 metre high mountain and the Corcovado forest. Now turn your head right and take in the majestic baldness of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Then tilt it left and ogle shamelessly at lotioned, sunbathing bodies, glistening like wet seals on the shoreline. And when it all gets a bit too overwhelming, turn around and let the ocean waves wash it all away.
“We Cariocas call it paraiso, only informally. Officially, this place has no name,” says a toothless man named Alvio, on his daily visit to ‘paradise’. “We would have named it Paraiso, with a capital P, but there would have been protests.” Why? “Because we can see God and beauty from here, but we can’t see the Maracana — Brazil’s most perfect architectural structure. And without Maracana, how can there be paradise?”
Paradise, then, lies about 20 kilometres away and in the heart of a concrete jungle called central Rio. Apart from denture-void Alvio and I, this paradise expected a few other visitors on Domingo — about a third of a million in-and-around the shrine-like estadio. On Sunday, the single most popular football ground in the world (the English will tell you that’s Wembley, not Maracana) hosted what should’ve been a relatively low-profile fixture between Belgium and Russia. About 74,000, mostly Brazilian, ticket-holders and thrice as many non ticket-holders showed up.
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“We will flock this place to even watch something as ridiculous as that game they play in India,” one fan in the queue said to me. I knew he meant cricket because he described it by taking a stance like WG Grace and playing a stroke that was the unfortunate offspring of a Dilscoop and Dandiya, the Gujarati dance-form. “Basically, we will come here to watch the grass grow. Or simply to stare at the walls outside. You get my point?”
I got his point. Construction of those walls began two years before Brazil hosted the 1950 World Cup. “More than 10,000 labourers worked on the project like Egyptians building a modern-day pyramid,” writes Alex Bellos, author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. Once complete, it could fit 184,000 spectators. It was near capacity — 173,850 to be precise — for the historic final, when Brazil lost 2-1 to neighbours Uruguay.
Today, the stadium is fitted with an eponymously named metro station that vomits out the mass of the earth from its belly. The distance between Estaciomento Maracana and Estadio do Maracana is barely 500 metres. But, we inch ahead in toes, not steps. All of Rio, it seems, has come to pay its obeisance.
“The stadium is far smaller now than back in 1950. Only 95,000 capacity,” says the steward outside Portao C, with a wink. “Although we expect a lot more than that if Brazil reach the final.” On the pitch and during the national anthems, Belgium and Russia must feel like they’re playing in one, for around them is a physical wall of noise. For the first 45 minutes, the game is dreadful. But Maracana, a stadium without a single bad seat in the house, knows how to keep itself busy.
“Just to be a part of this Mexican Wave, I feel my trip to Brazil has been worth the effort,” says Rui, the Venezuelan seated beside me. We’re on the second tier and watch with gaping mouths as the human lash of hands gushes below us. The Wave doesn’t just move horizontally, but vertically as well. As Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku charge towards our end during the second half, the Belgium fanatics sitting behind the goal rise. It causes those sitting behind the fanatics to rise and so on, until it reaches us in Fileira QQ, 43 rows above the tramline.
Sometime between the cross currents of the two perpendicular waves, Divock Origi finds the back of the Russian net. The builders of the modern-day pyramid had done well, for the structure withstood a most ghastly quake. The Venezuelan is crying; literally crying. “I went to the Maracana,” he says. “Now I can die in peace and go to heaven.” In footballing heaven, he already was.