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Renaming the Maracana after Pele does disservice to Mario Filho

If Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium were to be renamed after a player, there can only be one candidate. Garrincha played his glory years in the stadium, bewitching a series of opposing left-backs with his magical wing play in the 1950s and early 60s. In the two decades that followed, it was the stage of Zico, one of the most talented and intelligent playmakers to have graced the game.

But Garrincha did it in the black and white stripes of Botafogo, while Zico shone in the red and black of Flamengo, and one of the peculiarities of the Maracana is that it belongs to everyone and no-one.

Over the course of more than 70 years, it has served as the home for all four of Rio’s big clubs. Vasco da Gama have their own stadium nearby. Botafogo currently use a ground further down the road. In the past, both Flamengo and Fluminense have staged some matches in smaller venues, but all of them come back to the Maracana. The stadium holds seven decades of memories for fans of all colours.

It would not be right, then, to name the ground after someone who has taken sides in the city’s footballing conflicts. It would have to be someone who stands outside such local rivalries, but who even so has a connection with the stadium; that connection would have to be strong enough to make the exercise worthwhile.

Step forward, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Or rather, King Pele.

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Pele, of course, played for Santos, down the road in the neighbouring state of Sao Paulo. Santos is the port of the state, and it has the feel of a “mini-Rio.” For some of the big games in the club’s glory days, they came to the Maracana and it makes sense: the Maracana is the closest thing that Brazil has to a national stadium and Santos, with Pele at his breathtaking best backed by a magnificent supporting cast, were a national institution. So, in 1962 and 1963, when they played the home legs of the Intercontinental finals against Benfica and Milan, they brought the matches to Rio.

Pele loved the Maracana. Its grandiosity — the stadium resembles a giant spaceship parked to the north of the city centre — was an appropriate venue for his own futuristic genius. He played some of his favourite games there and, of course, he scored his famous 1,000th goal there, a penalty against Vasco da Gama in 1969.

And so now the Rio state legislature decided last week that the stadium should bear Pele’s name, though their decision still has to be ratified by the governor. It might be thought that they would have more urgent priorities, with the country gripped by its worst weeks yet of the coronavirus pandemic as the death toll continues to rise. But with an eye on the longer term, one of the justifications mooted was that a name change for the Maracana would be good for tourism. While that might be true, it’s not gone unnoticed, eliciting a furious reaction from journalists.

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This part is easily explained. The current official name of the Maracana is the Mario Filho stadium, and Mario Filho was one of their own. He certainly deserves to be remembered, too. He was the prime mover behind the construction of the stadium. In his Jornal dos Sports newspaper, he fought a thundering campaign for a giant new stadium to be built for the 1950 World Cup.

Filho also fought hard for its location. There were rival proposals for a stadium outside of Rio. Arguing in favour of accessibility, Filho was adamant that the new venue should be close to the city centre, and he won the day.

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Yet the Maracana is a mere footnote is his contribution, as it could be argued that Mario Filho did more to invent Brazilian sports journalism, and even Brazilian fan culture, than anyone else. In the mid-1930s, he took over the Jornal dos Sports — older Rio dwellers still get misty-eyed reminiscing about its iconic pink cover — and turned it into a vibrant, campaigning force.

He realised that if a big game was kicking off on Sunday, he could start the build-up the previous Monday, finding angles to create interest well ahead of the weekend’s action. And he played a vital role as the social base of Brazilian soccer fans changed. In the early days, the fans were mostly well-heeled club members who paid a monthly subscription to use the facilities. He broadened the base to bring in the urban masses, with significant influence from the United States.

Over the course of three famous Flamengo vs. Fluminense derbies in late-1936, his paper held competitions to encourage the fans to be part of the spectacle with songs and banners and displays. “We are trying to import to Brazil what happens in the USA,” wrote Filho, “but adapting this competition between fans to the Brazilian way.”

After the first of those games, Filho concluded that “Brazil has taken the first step in the ‘Americanization’ of its fans, who from now on can definitively organise themselves as a leading factor in encouraging their teams.”

It’s strange to think of baseball — by some distance the mass sport in the United States at the time — as having such a strong influence on the development of fan culture in Brazil, but this is undeniably the case, and Mario Filho is the man who forced the link.

He deserves his place in history. Should he lose the name of the stadium he helped to construct? Or, as one journalist suggested, should Pele politely turn down the offer to become the new name of the stadium?

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The best answer is probably this: whatever happens, people will still refer to the place as the Maracana.

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