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Day 53: Rio de Janeiro

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The Visitor Centre at the Maracanã. The rebuilt stadium (seen here) will host the World Cup Final in 2014. Capacity will be 80,000. The old Maracanã squeezed in 200,000 for Brazil's World Cup Final in 1950. They lost one-nil to Uruguay.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe stadium we're in is set in the comfortable area of Laranjeiras and is the oldest football ground in Brazil, dating back to 1919. The stands have been well preserved and there's a lot of the original woodwork. But it's not a big ground, and nowadays it's only used for training games. It's the buildings attached to it that take the breath away. Built in French Belle époque style, with wide staircases, vast mirrors, elegant ballrooms and stained-glass windows, they're quite unlike anything I've ever seen at a football club. There's an immaculate little garden and stucco decorations on the wall in Greek classical style. There is a modern club shop selling Fluminense strip and assorted merchandising. It's called, somewhat unfortunately, the Flu Boutique.

Tim draws an interesting contrast between the two great passions of Brazilian life – football and samba. Football started at the top and seeped very quickly down to all levels of society, whereas samba started at the bottom and became the ultimate in sophistication. There are other anomalies that he helps me try and understand. Why, if football is the national obsession, are average attendances in the Brazilian league only around 14,000? He has various explanations. The stadiums are old and inadequate. Games are played late in the evening when it's cooler, sometimes not kicking off till ten o'clock. This, along with a pretty poor public transport system, can mean a long walk home along often dangerous streets. He paints a bleak picture of fans getting home after the match. 'It's like a tropical version of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow,' he says.

But Tim thinks there's a deeper reason, which accords with a number of things
I've already heard about Brazilians. They like good news. They like the sun to shine. They like to be thought playful and easygoing, dwelling not on past or future but on the here and now. Alex Bellos quotes an historian, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, as suggesting that the Brazilian contribution to civilization is 'cordiality'. The negative side to all this, thinks Tim, is a national inability, or simply disinclination, to deal with anything bad. Applied to football, this means that if your team's not winning you don't go to the ground. Club loyalty, says Tim, is another victim of what he calls the manic depressiveness at the heart of the Brazilian national character. 'It pats itself on the back effusively with every victory, and torments itself with every defeat.'

As if on cue, the rain starts to patter down on the roof of the stadium and there are long faces and big umbrellas at the gates of Fluminense Football Club. The slow steady rain makes me think of home. Which is not entirely inappropriate. It was at Fluminense's ground that Brazil's national team played their first game ever. It was against a touring British club side, Exeter City FC. In their first international Brazil beat Exeter 2-0. Just over a month later the First World War broke out in Europe.

A rather wonderful coda to this day of football. I go up to the guests' club room at our hotel to complain about the Wi-Fi reception. The lady is very helpful and confides that she knows who I am. Moments later a big, leather-bound guest book is brought out for me to sign. The paper is thick and luxurious. She finds a new page for me.

'There,' she says. 'You will be in good company.'

I check the page before mine. There, with a little drawing of a ball hitting the back of a football net, is the one word, Pelé.
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Not your average football club. Stained glass grandeur in the ballroom at Fluminense.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 53: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 220

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