RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Michigan Stadium is The Big House. It’s a fitting title for the now 106,201-seat cathedral of college football.
Double that capacity, and you have the Maracana.
Rio’s stadium once held more than 200,000 fans, but renovations to fit standards for international competition have eliminated a Michigan Stadium worth of fans. The most recent construction, which ended in 2007, dropped the capacity to 95,000. Wolverine fans, with their similarly iconic stadium under construction, must too face the pressures of modern athletics.
The capacity constraints haven’t bothered soccer fans in Rio. They still act as if their stadium is the biggest and best in the world, speaking about it the same way they recall their first love — and for many, they are one and the same.
“Even if it isn’t the biggest anymore, it was once,” said Adriano Albuquerque, a sports writer in Rio. “And since most of the structure is still the same, fans still feel like, if we just squeezed everybody in it, we could probably get 200,000 inside again. The way it echoes and rocks when at full capacity also makes Brazilians feel like it couldn’t happen like that in any other stadium in the world.”
Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest country, is famous for samba, beaches and Carnival. But nothing unites Brazilians like soccer. And the most famous and beloved shrine of the game is Maracana. Originally built for the 1950 World Cup final and set to host the final again in 2014, it has hosted Pele, Pope John Paul II, Paul McCartney and The Police — and those are just the Ps.
Before the modernizations, every seat at Maracana was a bleacher. In a country with some of the widest economic inequality in the world, soccer fans were proud of the equality they represented.
“It is the most democratic place in the city,” Albuquerque said. “You’ll find a wide range of characters, from rich guys, to the poorest men, to women, to children in the bleachers.”
Now, backed seats have replaced all the bleachers. Suites circle the top of the stadium. A massive press box dominates one side of the field. And the areas behind the goals, where hooligans essentially had free reign, have been removed.
Though other stadiums have knocked Maracana from its place as the largest stadium in the world, they haven’t altered how Brazilians think of their stadium.
Albuquerque remembers when, as a 10-year old, he had the opportunity to walk on to the field before a game. It was the first time he saw it full.
“The crowd partying loudly as the team walked toward midfield to salute the fans, it was wild,” he said. “Heart racing, the greenest of grass, sun in the sky, lots of cut-up paper and rolls of paper being thrown to the air in the stands, lots of flags waving, colored smoke. I could barely look at the camera of my mom’s friend as he tried to register the moment in photos. And that stadium, from the ground, looks even more gigantic — imagine from the perspective of a 10-year old.”
Michigan Stadium holds a similar place in Ann Arbor and in the hearts of Michigan fans.
Sure, Michigan has The Diag, top-notch academics, and the Law Quad. But when the Wall Street Journal named the Stephen M. Ross School of Business the top in the country in 2007, there was no University-wide celebration. With football, regardless of the opponent, there is never a question whether fewer than 107,000 people will attend.
And The Big House will always be The Big House.
For the next two years, the concourse will look more like a construction site. And the parking lot across the street will be dominated by trailers. But that doesn’t change what happens once toe meets leather.
Two teams still battle on the gridiron with more than 100,000 fans bearing witness. During construction, it might not be the biggest stadium in the country. Brazilians have handled that change — they pretty much disregard it. Wolverine fans are on their way to accepting this fact. Three times last season Penn State’s Beaver Stadium packed more fans in than Michigan. No one seemed to care.
After last week’s loss to Utah, fans were talking about quarterbacks, pregame half-circles, inept offense. Basically, everything but the stadium — except those who were grateful for the extra shade.
Like Maracana, Michigan Stadium memories won’t change because of construction. And future ones won’t be affected either.
— Robinson wants to go back to Rio. He can be reached at email@example.com.