SAO PAULO, May 30 (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro’s new-look Maracana stadium finally gets to stage its first proper match on Sunday after a rebuilding programme plagued by delays, burgeoning costs and concern that ordinary fans will be priced out of the shiny plastic seats.
England’s first visit to Brazil for 29 years will mark the end of a long drawn-out, $500-million programme to modernise the arena which will host seven matches at the 2014 World Cup, including the final.
“The Maracana looks lovely and it’s really great to be back,” Bebeto, 1994 World Cup-winning forward and member of Brazil’s World Cup organising committee, told reporters. “It’s always good to return. I feel at home.”
However, Bebeto’s former strike partner Romario, now an outspoken member of Brazil’s Congress, disagreed and said the stadium had ceased to be the seething cauldron where he scored some of his greatest goals.
“What they’ve done is atrocious,” he told reporters. “The stadium was the best stage in the world and the politicians and officials managed to destroy it. It’s totally different.”
Initially built for the 1950 World Cup, the Maracana was supposed to be ready for its re-inauguration in December, six months ahead of the Confederations Cup in June.
After repeated delays, it was officially re-opened with a game on April 27.
However, the match featured two portly teams headed by former internationals Bebeto and Ronaldo, the stadium and surroundings were far from finished even then and only 30,000 people were allowed in.
Sunday’s friendly will be the only professional match to be staged there before the Confederations Cup, regarded as a test event for the World Cup, kicks off on June 15.
The Maracana has always been regarded as the spiritual home of Brazilian football.
It has witnessed Brazil lose the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay, Pele’s 1,000th goal, and the swagger of players such as Garrincha, Zico and Romario.
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For half a century, crowds of more than 100,000 and reputedly sometimes nearly twice that have watched Rio’s big four teams play there, as well as the national side and Pele’s Santos, who often played important games there in the 1960s.
However, the stadium fell into disrepair and three people were killed when a fence at the front of the upper tier gave way at the Brazilian championship final in 1992, sending dozens of fans crashing on to the seats several metres below.
By the mid-1990s, it had become a decrepit, fetid arena permeated on match days by the smell of urine and stale beer, where marauding gangs instigated brawls and mugged other supporters on the terraces.
At one point, it went five years without staging a Brazil match.
It underwent its first major overhaul in 1999 to prepare it for the following year’s World Club Championship, when capacity was reduced to below six figures for the first time.
It was refurbished again for the 2007 Pan American Games, and the “Geral”, a standing area close to the pitch, was removed, taking away even more of the heated atmosphere.
The most recent, and controversial, makeover began in late 2010 and has so far cost some $500 million, taking total spending over 14 years to around $1 billion.
Capacity has been reduced to 78,838 and the two separate tiers and the distinctive coloured seats marking each section have gone.
In their place are one tier of yellow, blue and grey seats, a new and expanded roof and huge television screens.
“The stadium is fabulous,” FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said last week after visiting it.
“I can’t imagine a FIFA Confederations Cup or a FIFA World Cup without a game at the Maracana. There would be something very wrong with that.”
The Rio de Janeiro state government, which is in charge of the work, said: ”The reform is transforming the stadium into a modern and comfortable arena.
“It was done to the highest levels of sophistication and engineering,” it added in an emailed response to questions.
Many fans disagree and are also angry at plans to demolish the neighbouring swimming pool and athletics stadium, both upgraded for the Pan American Games.
Protesters angry at the removal of Indians from a nearby building that is to be knocked down for use as a car park have clashed with police on several occasions.
Fans who have spent large parts of their lives going to the stadium say they now cannot tell which end is which.
“The lovely and modern football stadium in the Maracana neighbourhood is not the Maracana,” said Fernando Molica, a columnist with the Rio newspaper O Dia.
“I had this strange feeling that I didn’t recognise my own home.” (Editing by Todd Benson/Brian Homewood and Sonia Oxley)