Rio’s Maracana Stadium is the spiritual home of football. It was originally built for the 1950 World Cup and held 199,000 fans in the final that Brazil lost to Uruguay. Out of that defeat, and the mind-boggling crowd, a mythology was created.
On Monday, as we filed in to see Argentina play Bosnia-Herzegovina, the modernised version seats 80,000 with four huge TV screens. It’s an amazingly intimate arena, shaped like a soup bowl and affording even the furthest seats a decent view, unlike the MCG or Sydney’s Olympic Stadium.
Tonight the Maracana is packed with febrile Argentines who make a noise so intense that even surpasses the din at the Australia v Uruguay qualifier in Sydney in 2005, my previous benchmark.
Their singing, chanting and jumping create a sensory environment that is closer to a place of worship than a sporting spectacle. And when Messi scores the crucial second goal with a beautiful curling shot that scrapes in off the post, they go berserk with a manic bow of gratitude.
Here, at this match in this stadium, is the distillation of everything that is addictive about the World Cup. This experience, way beyond the 2-1 match result, will never be forgotten.
On the way back to the underground, however, there is a reminder of the underbelly of mass exuberance. The temporary wooden stairs, standing only scaffolding, begin to wobble and shake violently under the crush of fans trudging their way home. It would only take one plank to give way to spark a collapse of the whole construction and the prospect of tragic loss of life. This is no exaggeration. Holding the rail tightly, we look ahead anxiously, counting the stairs to the concrete concourse above.
Up looms a tall rangy man wearing a Sydney FC jersey and his mate in an Australian jumper. “What an amazing experience!” I shout at him above the din of Argentine fans still chanting on the way back to the subway. “Have you ever heard that much noise in a stadium before?”
Calm as you like, he replied: “Mate, we watched the game in a bar 10 minutes from the Maracana … couldn’t get tickets. It sure looked noisy.”
Before I could laugh at his misfortune, he continued: “At least we saved ourselves a few thousand bucks. That’s what they were charging for tickets here before the match. What did you pay?”
There was no avoiding it. “We fluked some in the FIFA ballot. Face value.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Well, we still got to experience the post-match crush – and it didn’t cost us anything.”