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Soccer

Two Brazilian cities, two games, halfway to the 2014 World Cup

RIO DE JANEIRO -- On the belvedere atop Corcovado mountain, tourists crowd the railings for a God's-eye view of the world's most beautiful cityscape. Standing under one Rio icon, the open-armed statue of Christ the Redeemer, they aim their phone cameras at another: Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), the granite outcropping that resembles a giant cat crouching at the edge of Guanabara Bay.

Off to the left, though, is a Rio landmark of equal significance, at least to futebol fans: Maracanã, the largest stadium in Brazil and the site of the 2014 World Cup final.

Even from as far away as Corcovado you can see the cranes poking out of Maracanã's huge oval. The stadium, like many others around Brazil, is closed for renovations to meet FIFA specifications for the quadrennial blowout of the world's most popular sport. Maracanã, which hosted the 1950 World Cup final, is being refurbished not only for the 2014 World Cup but also for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Its roof is being extended to cover all of the seats; a new grandstand, similar to the one at the Bernabéu in Madrid, is being built to hold more than a third of the projected capacity of 76,000 fans (or 82,000, depending on which report you read); new access ramps are being constructed; and new locker rooms, luxury suites, media facilities, restaurants, shops and refreshment stands are being put in. The project, which began two years ago and will cost an estimated $300 million to $400 million, might be finished by the end of this year. In any event it must be ready for the 2013 Confederations Cup, the two-week World Cup shakedown tournament whose final will be held at Maracanã on June 30.

Meanwhile the stadium's usual tenants, the first-division clubs Flamengo and Fluminense, have been playing their home games in the Engenhão, a 45,000-seat stadium to the north of Maracanã. The Engenhão is the permanent home of yet another first-division team, Botafogo, which makes for complicated scheduling, not to mention considerable wear on the field. The grass is so faded and full of divots that early in August Flamengo insisted on playing a home game at a stadium in the town of Volta Redonda, about 65 miles northwest of Rio.

That's one of the downsides of the run-up to 2014. Another is that some Brazilian fans can't be bothered to make the slog to their team's temporary home, even for an important game. That, at least, was the case on Aug. 12, when Fluminense, in third place in the standings and just one victory from second, hosted the São Paulo club Palmeiras at the Engenhão. An anemic crowd of 8,536 showed up.

To be fair, it was Sunday evening, and it was Father's Day in Brazil, when many fans presumably had family obligations, and the opponent was a hapless team struggling to stay out of the relegation zone. But some Fluminense supporters, among the most affluent in Rio, are also said to be loath to drive 40 minutes from their comfortable enclaves in southern Rio, near the city's famous beaches, to the subúrbios, which is what Brazilians call less-safe lower-middle-class neighborhoods. More salt-of-the-earth fans of other clubs have been known to refer to Fluminense supporters as pó de arroz (rice powder), an old-fashioned cosmetic. In other words, girly men.

The long block between the Engenhão's parking lot and the stadium is a gauntlet of improvised tents and stands selling soft drinks, sausages and red-and-green Fluminense flags and shirts. More important, they sell beer, and fans knock back one or two or three before going into the arena. Alcoholic beverages can't be purchased inside Brazilian stadiums, to the chagrin of FIFA and of World Cup sponsor Budweiser -- which, it happens, is owned by a Belgian-Brazilian brewing conglomerate. A half-dozen military policemen stand guard along the street with barking German shepherds straining at their leashes.

Inside the arena, more police and dogs line the track that surrounds the field. The Engenhão was built for the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio, whose success helped persuade FIFA and the IOC that Brazil was capable of pulling off the 2014-2016 double. The Pan Am Games track's lanes are still marked, and there are sand pits for the jumps and circles for the shot put and discus throw. The Engenhão won't host the World Cup, but it will be the site of track and field events at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.

Meanwhile it's a fine place to watch a soccer game, especially from a $20 seat in the airy upper deck during the mild subequatorial winter. Fluminense's torcida organizada, or organized supporters, make a wonderful racket, pounding samba drums, chanting, singing and whistling. They wave giant flags, including one bearing the face of Fred, Fluminense's star striker, over a slogan that translates roughly as "Fred's Gonna Get You." Only problem is, down on the field, Fred's not getting the ball. Palmeiras' defense hangs tough and even goes on the attack, with center back Thiago Heleno and right back Artur each bouncing a shot off Fluminense's goalpost. The game devolves into a defensive struggle, frustrating the most vocal Flu fans in the upper deck, some of whom remind their heroes loudly and profanely that the purpose of the game is to move forward.

Seven minutes from the end, Fluminense finally breaks down Palmeiras' resistance. Flu midfielder Jean finds the ball in a scrum in front of the net and pounds it into the left corner. The crowd explodes. Better yet, Palmeiras, now all but sure to drop into the relegation zone, mounts a furious comeback, and the final minutes are everything a game should be, fast and dangerous and exciting, until the final whistle draws a collective sigh of relief from the home fans. A couple of seats over from me, the man who had shouted the filthiest curses looks at the night sky and crosses himself like a choirboy.

***

In May, work on six of Brazil's 12 World Cup stadiums was so far behind schedule that it was feared they might not be finished in time for the tournament, according to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. This, of course, is the kind of thing that was reported about South Africa's venues before the 2010 World Cup, and the Brazilian government insisted in April that at all the stadiums would be ready, although work on only five of them was more than 50 percent completed at the time. More recently, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said he was satisfied with the construction progress after a three-day inspection trip in August.

Still, there's no denying that labor strikes and budget overruns have slowed the progress of renovation or construction at many stadiums, and the estimated overall cost of the work has more than tripled since Brazil was awarded the Cup in 2007, to $3.68 billion, according to a Reuters report in April. Much of that cost will be borne by the Brazilian taxpayer.

Not so at the the Mineirão, Brazil's second largest stadium, in Belo Horizonte, about 225 miles north of Rio. The venue, which will host three games during the Confederations Cup and six (including a semifinal) at the World Cup, will be ready in late December, and it will cost the government very little, according to Severiano Braga, the operations manager for Minas Arena, the private company that's overhauling the stadium. Leading a tour of the Mineirão's 50-acre site in mid-August, Severiano (everyone in Brazil goes by his first name, from the president to soccer players to cab drivers) explains that Minas Arena, a consortium of three construction companies, negotiated a 27-year concession with the government of Minas Gerais, the state of which Belo Horizonte is the capital, to renovate and run the Mineirão.

Minas Arena is spending about $320 million, some 95 percent of the total cost, on the two-year refurbishment and will recoup its investment over the quarter-century it will operate the resulting multipurpose site, which will include not only the soccer field but also shops, restaurants, food stands and outdoor venues for everything from concerts to art fairs to skating competitions.

Built in 1965, the Mineirão once crammed 100,000 fans into its standing-room grandstands and 4,000 cars into an outdoor parking lot built for 2,800. What remains of the old stadium is mostly its landmarked façade, which has been sanded and stained a darker shade of gray.

Inside, the field has been removed, and the stadium's dirt floor is occupied by four giant cranes, a cement mixer, a backhoe, flatbed trucks and milling workers in orange coveralls. A total of 3,000 laborers work on the project, Severiano said, 1,000 of them living in the Mineirinho, the adjacent arena for volleyball and other indoor sports. Overhead, part of the Mineirão's translucent roof extension, which will cover all seats, is already in place. The grass has already been purchased for the new field, which will be lowered by 10 feet to improve sightlines for the fans, and so have the seats, which will reduce the stadium's capacity to 64,000, including luxury suites. The press will have not only its own seats but also its own entrance, elevator, bar and bathrooms.

Outside, the concrete floor of the new esplanade that will surround the stadium is in place, 60 yards at its widest. From it you can see the Belo Horizonte skyline in the distance and Pampulha Lake nearby. This is where the shows and other extra-soccer activities will take place, making the Mineirão the kind of place where, Minas Arena hopes, fans will want to arrive hours before a game and linger afterward, and where even non-soccer fans will want to come for a meal, entertainment or just to promenade. Eighty percent of the 2,800 parking spots will be under the esplanade, leaving the outdoor space open for, among other facilities, an amphitheater capable of seating more than 30,000 people. The complex will be further beautified, Severiano says, by the planting of about 400 trees.

Minas Arena's deal with the state government is an example of the parceria público-privada, or public-private partnership, that Brazil's state houses and federal government are promoting in lieu of outright privatization of state properties. Companies invest in public properties and in return get to operate them, and reap the profits, for a specified amount of time. The day Severiano leads our tour, the press reports new federal deals of this sort to repair and build highways and railroads around the country.

For the past two years, meanwhile, the Mineirão's soccer tenants -- the bitter crosstown rivals Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro -- have had to play elsewhere, as Flamengo and Fluminense have been obliged to in Rio. At first it was at Sete Lagoas, more than 40 miles from Belo Horizonte, a drive as unappetizing to fans as the trek to the Engenhão is to Flu supporters. But in July the Arena Independência, a 25,000-seat stadium inside Belo Horizonte that is home to the second-division team América, reopened after its own renovation and gave Belo's top-tier clubs a place in town to host games.

And just in time, too, for Atlético Mineiro was off to the best start in recent Brazilian club soccer history. It's now in second place with 51 points through 23 matches, two points behind Fluminense. And it has Ronaldinho.

***

Ronaldinho Gaúcho, as he is called in Brazil -- to distinguish him from Ronaldinho Fenômeno, the retired superstar known to the rest of the world as Ronaldo -- arrived in Belo Horizonte this season after an unhappy stay with Flamengo. One of several players signed to bolster Atlético Mineiro's roster, Ronaldinho not only brought his supernatural ball-handling skills but also became an apostle of hard training and a mentor to Atlético's 19-year-old prodigy, offensive midfielder Bernard. According to Fábio Lage, a lifelong Atlético fan, Ronaldinho told Bernard to go on the attack and trust that Ronaldinho and their teammates would back him up. The result has been a breakout season in which Bernard shares the lead for Atlético in goals and assists.

The Gaúcho (the Brazilian word for people from the state of Rio Grande do Sul) is still the team's biggest draw, as attested by all the Ronaldinho masks on sale at the street-side stands on the way to the Arena Independência. The morning of Atlético's home game against Botafogo on Aug. 19, a banner headline in the sports section of the Belo Horizonte newspaper Estado de Minas read, BRING IT ON, SEEDORF. Botafogo's star midfielder, the Dutch international Clarence Seedorf, is winding down a distinguished career that included teaming with Ronaldinho at AC Milan. Their showdown in Belo Horizonte, however overhyped (Ronaldinho and Seedorf are good friends, as they demonstrate with a prolonged hug-and-chat at midfield before the game), draws a crowd just shy of 20,000, almost filling the stadium and turning the stands into a sea of black-and-white-striped jerseys, the colors of both Atlético and Botafogo.

The drumming and shouting and chanting and singing and choreographed clapping are all for the home team, though, coming both from the vast torcida organizada filling the west stands and, in the south, the smaller torcida alcoolizada (translate that yourself), whose oversize flag bears the image of Homer Simpson hoisting a brimming beer stein. Down on the field, the fans are further stoked up by the Galo Doido (Crazy Rooster), Atlético's mascot, a tall, muscle-bound fowl with a strong resemblance to Foghorn Leghorn. Add the fireworks that accompany the introduction of the home team and the singing of the club anthem Galo Forte e Vingador (Strong, Avenging Rooster) in thundering unison, and by the time Botafogo taps the ball into play the crowd is on the edge of its seats.

Ronaldinho charges the ball as if his famous ponytail is on fire, dispelling the image of the overweight, less than wholly dedicated player he was accused of being his last years in Europe. He ranges all over the field, deploying the thrilling skills that made him the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. He threads short passes in traffic, launches beautiful arcs to the feet of charging teammates, cuts and turns and reverses course unexpectedly, backheels no-look passes and fires dangerous crosses and free kicks. He feeds Bernard, who goes on Messi-like charges across the middle of the field, and he sends balls high to Jô, Atlético's towering striker and major scoring threat both in the air and on the ground. Ronaldinho loses his share of balls too, the magic sometimes fading. Botafogo's goalie, Jefferson, makes several dramatic saves, and as the first half wears on, Brazil's best team of the moment can't seem to score.

Seedorf, meanwhile, is easily the best man on the visiting team, calm and smooth and accurate. The 36-year-old Dutchman makes a meal of Atlético's right back, Serginho, who is substituting for the injured Marcos Rocha and barely up to the task of stemming Botafogo's surges down his flank. With 10 minutes to go in the half, Botafogo midfielder Andrezinho scores on a counterattack. The stadium goes silent, but then the crowd decides to give its boys a boost and starts cheering for Atlético. Just before time expires Ronaldinho lofts a pass to Jô in the goalmouth. Jefferson bats away Jô's strike, but Atlético's Argentine midfielder, Escudero, closes in and finishes, tying the game. Ronaldinho looks up at the stands and walks around with his arms outspread, like an ambulant Christ the Redeemer.

All things considered, the home crowd is upbeat at halftime. The view from the $75 seats in the north upper deck is pleasing. The stands go right down to the field, as in U.S. baseball parks, and past the open east end of the stadium you can see the sunlight fading on the mountains. The seating protocol, though, takes getting used to. Season tickets in the upper deck are for assigned seats, but everyone takes the best seat available, first come, first served, and it's bad manners to ask anyone to move. World Cup visitors may find this hard to accept, but it doesn't dampen the experience of attending the game.

In fact the man with the diamond stud in his left ear who drops into the seat in front of me is none other than Júnior, the left back on the Brazilian seleção that won the country's fourth World Cup trophy, in Los Angeles in 1994. He finished his career with Atlético and still attends its games. My friend Chico França, a lawyer and diehard Atlético fan, asks Júnior to assess the game so far. "Não tá feliz," he says -- it's not happy -- and he notes what Chico has been complaining about from the beginning, that Seedorf is having his way with Serginho.

Atlético presses the attack again in the second half. Bernard pickpockets a Botafogo defender, sends the ball down the side to Jô and races into the box, barely missing a goal on Jô's cross. Jô himself barely misses converting a corner kick from Ronaldinho. Finally, Ronaldinho dribbles toward the goal and brilliantly tees up Jô, who blasts a goal for Atlético's first lead of the game, 2-1. The crowd erupts, "Ronaldinho é um terror! E-o! E-o!" Ronaldinho is a terror, yes, but as he repeats his open-armed strut he looks beatific.

Atlético keeps the heat on, and its coach, Cuca, finally removes Serginho for Carlos César, but in the 79th minute the team is called for a penalty kick about which there is little dispute: Botafogo's Rafael Marques takes a pass from Seedorf in the area and is brought down by Atlético's Leonardo Silva. Andrezinho steps up to the mark and buries the ball in the net for his second goal of the afternoon, tying the game again.

The crowd is deflated, but not for long. Eight minutes later two substitutions by Cuca pay off. Newly inserted forward Neto Berola does a give-and-go with Carlos César, who backheels the ball to the streaking striker. Jefferson, the goalie, comes out as Neto Berola enters the area, and the forward pops the ball over his head for the dramatic winner. In the ensuing pandemonium, the crowd breaks into the samba Vou Festejar (loosely translated, "I'll Have the Last Laugh"), which was popular in the late 1970s and was adopted by Atlético fans in the way Liverpool supporters adopted "You'll Never Walk Alone." The celebrating players can't take off their shirts, for fear of a yellow card, but there's nothing to stop the spectators from doing so, and out come some beer bellies. Soon the game is over, and as the fans around him sing and chant deliriously, Júnior stands still with a little smile on his face, perhaps pleased that the winning assist was from another backliner.

Out on the street, as the supporters head home, the noise is unabated. By early next year many in the crowd should cross the esplanade at the Mineirão for the state club championship and then the Confederations Cup and finally the World Cup. There's no better place than Brazil to see a soccer game. If the government and its private partners finish the stadiums on time and succeed in upgrading the transportation infrastructure for the hundreds of thousands who will flood in from abroad, it will be a World Cup like no other.

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