I’m not usually a big fan of the beautiful game. But when you’re offered the opportunity to watch a contest between two Brazilian football teams at the legendary Maracanã stadium—the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro—you don’t refuse. I had to choose between a cable car ride to the Sugarloaf Mountain and a football match at the stadium. I put my hand up for the football match immediately. After all, I reasoned, one isn’t required to be religious to enjoy the sandhya aarti at the Dashashwamedh ghat in Varanasi.

In Brazil, futebol is religion and Maracanã its Mecca. The Estádio do Maracanã has seen some of the largest gatherings in sporting history—the 1950 World Cup final is said to have been witnessed by about 2,00,000 spectators. It is where Pele scored his thousandth goal. And it’s where the biggest club teams of Rio de Janeiro strut their stuff. Now, 64 years later, the FIFA World Cup has returned to Brazil and Maracanã will host a number of matches, including the final.

But I’m glad I chose the game over the mountain peak. Without the Maracanã evening seven years ago, my experience of the absolutely fascinating Brazil would have been incomplete.

“It is going to be quite damp today. There won’t be a big crowd,” our local friend Sergio Manhães said, preparing us for the “lukewarm” evening as he drove over the 14 kilometre-long Rio- Niterói bridge in his Ford Ikon. “You see, Brasiliense is a visiting team and they don’t have many supporters in Rio de Janeiro. You should have come for a Flamengo-Fluminense clash for the real Maracanã experience.”

Having spent almost a month in Rio, we were all “Flamengo fans” by then. That, of course, was primarily because most of our hosts, including Sergio, were Flamengo diehards. There used to be endless football conversations at home parties—even the pet dog was wearing the football club’s jersey on one occasion. The only word we could follow in the animated conversations in Portuguese was “Flamengo”. Sometimes we would hear of Botafogo, Vasco da Gama, and Fluminense—the three other major teams from Rio. In no time we became ardent fans of the O mais querido do Brasil (the dearest of Brazil), the country’s best and most popular football club.

However, on the day we went to Maracanã, it was not Flamengo, but archrival Fluminense playing Brasiliense from the capital city in the semi-finals of the Copa do Brasil, the Brazil Cup.

“Brazilians are becoming lazy. They’d rather stay at home and watch the match on TV than cheer their teams from the gallery,” Sergio told us, pulling into a parking lot more than a kilometre away. We were still discussing the football-viewing habits of Brazilians and why this match would not be much of a crowd-puller. We had reached more than an hour before the match was to start and there was not a single space to park the car.

“Didn’t you say there won’t be too many people, Sergio?”

“There aren’t. This is half or even less than what you generally see.”

Lost in the sea of humanity milling about the stadium, I wondered what that must be like, the “real experience”. Back home in cricket-loving India, the Indian Premier League was still a year away. The domestic Ranji Trophy matches used to be, and still are, sad scenes with cricketers playing to near-empty galleries, but for a handful of sports journalists, friends and relatives. That a “damp” domestic game in Brazil should bring together so many people—about 35,000-40,000—was a revelation.

“Where can I get a Flamengo jersey?” one of my friends suddenly asked as we walked past roadside stalls selling, obviously, only Fluminense merchandise.

“Don’t even utter the word Flamengo here unless you want to be roughed up by the crowd,” Sergio warned. It suddenly felt like being in enemy territory. Sergio was not wearing his favourite Flamengo red-and-black stripes either. It was a riot of the maroon, white and green— Tricolor de Coração (the tricolour of the heart)—all around.

The scenes outside the stadium were nothing less than a carnival. Music played from audio systems fitted to cars, couples did impromptu samba routines, and boisterous teenagers milled about the statue of Hilderaldo Bellini—the goalkeeper and captain of the Brazilian team that won the first World Cup in Sweden in 1958. They posed for pictures, raising their right hands as the sculpted Bellini raised the World Cup.

We tucked into hotdogs sold from the rear of a car, washing them down with beer or caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail) before heading for the match. Sausages sizzled on the grills and skewers changed sides to work up perfect barbeques.

Brazilian hotdogs are an elaborate affair. A bun is split into two and a sausage is placed in between, with a filling of chopped tomatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, beans, vinaigrette, mustard sauce, ketchup and more—you can choose your combination. 

Brazilian hotdogs are an elaborate affair. A bun is split into two and a sausage is placed in between, with a filling of chopped tomatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, beans, vinaigrette, mustard sauce, ketchup and more—you can choose your combination. I do not eat meat, so my specially-ordered hot dog had everything but the sausage. Of course, the sellers were amused with my not-so-usual request. They smiled and I relished my “vegetarian hot dog”, chasing it down with a can of chilled Guaraná Antarctica.

We half-walked, half-skipped our way into the stadium, egged on by a boisterous crowd that was chanting “Nense! Nense!”—the nickname of Fluminense. A lady in advanced stage of pregnancy walked past, wearing a Fluminense jersey, like her partner. “This is purely catch-’em-young policy. This is the lady’s way of ensuring the baby is a Fluminense fan even before he is born.” Sergio’s expert commentary didn’t miss a beat.

The carnival continued inside the stadium, which at that point had a cantilevered concrete roof that partially gave cover to the seated spectators. The stadium was later reconstructed and modernised for World Cup 2014 and the Olympics 2016, and now has a stunning new roof of fibreglass.

Flags and banners hung from every possible corner and people arrived in all shapes and sizes, but mostly in the same Fluminense tricolour, especially in that part of the stadium where we were seated. Before long we found ourselves shouting, “Nense! Nense!”

It’s not that the Brasiliense side did not have any supporters. In fact they came by the busload and cheered their team from their side of the gallery (fanatics of different clubs, we were told, were seated in different areas to avoid violent clashes), but they were far outnumbered by supporters of the local club.

Seconds after we seated ourselves, small chits of paper were passed from one hand to the other. The lyrics of the Fluminense team anthem were written on them. We tried memorising, without understanding one word of Portuguese, in the short time we had before the match began. But with so much to do—taking in the green expanse of the field, for example—we gave up. Instead, we tried to lip-sync as best we could when everyone around us erupted in unison, singing: “Clube que orgulha o Brasil/ Retumbante de glórias e vitórias mil!” We concluded with a perfect “Nense! Nense!”

All eyes were on the ball when the referee blew the opening whistle. The silence of tense moments was as deafening as the euphoric outbursts. Rather than watching the ball being passed around, I enjoyed watching the spectators, their expressions reflecting the progress of the match. I did exactly what they did: sang with them, danced with them, went up and down with them to form human waves. At one point I was about to repeat what someone was shouting from behind me, when Sergio, ever so gently, told me: “That’s a swear phrase. It means ... They are abusing the players for conceding a goal to the opponents.”

I looked at the boy seated behind me. He was pacing in the small space in front of his seat, cracking his knuckles, stopping only to hurl abuse at his favourite players. His face bore the expression of someone who had just lost everything in a game of dice.

It’s time for Coke, beer and Guaraná at half-time. “Cerveja, cerveja,” shouted the beer-sellers who brought your drink to your seat, just like chaiwallahs in India.

I don’t remember how the game progressed or when and how the goals happened. All I can say is that it was a nail-biting match—after demolishing his knuckles, the boy behind me feasted on his nails. In the end, “we” won, 5-3. In fact, Fluminense went on to lift the Copa do Brasil.

Our legs were sore from literally being on our toes the entire time (the money for the seat was a complete waste!) and our voices were cracked. When we exited the stadium, the euphoria continued outside—unruly fans were escorted away by the police till they were a safe distance from the stadium area. Sergio safely guided us to our car.

Sergio, who was 48 then, has been |organising tours to the Maracanã for the past 17 years, purely on the side. For a living, he works at the Central Bank at the Secretariat for Institutional Relations in Rio de Janeiro. Architect by training, he took up guiding tourists to Maracanã out of a love for football and meeting people. His group never exceeds four, the maximum that can fit into his car. And he charges just for his ticket and fuel. “Football is the way of life for me. I love meeting people and taking them to a game at the Maracanã. I’ve made some interesting friends over the years.”

Then he says something that makes me really happy: “Visiting Maracanã is a must not only for fans of football, but for general tourists too who want to savour a slice of the Brazilian life.” Sergio runs a blog too—futebolnomaracana.blogspot.com—in which he gives regular updates on football matches being played at Maracanã and through which he maintains contact with people the world over. You can always buy a ticket and watch a match at the Maracanã on your own or take one of those football tour packages offered at the hotel reception, but with Sergio, the experience was authentically local. We did just like the locals do—eating, drinking, cheering, even swearing!