RIO DE JANEIRO — Venezuelan tourist Alexis Nunez was thrilled to be standing in front of the Maracana.
He crossed his arms, pulled down his shades and began staring at what he calls the “Cathedral of Football.”
To soccer fans, there is something magical about the Maracana. It is to soccer what Yankee Stadium is to baseball, what Lambeau Field is to American football, what Madison Square Garden is to basketball.
The “Temple of Football” is the second-most visited tourist destination in Rio, behind only the Christ the Redeemer statue.
Thoughts raced through Nunez’s mind as the sound of heavy machinery echoed from inside.
It’s where Pele scored his 1,000th career goal in 1969, and where nearly 200,000 people watched the 1950 World Cup final, when Brazil was upset by Uruguay in what became known as the Maracanazo. It was the largest crowd ever known to have watched a soccer match.
But with a year to go on an extensive renovation project, the best might yet be to come for the famed stadium.
Brazil will attract the world’s attention in the next few years by playing host to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the Maracana will be the centerpiece of both events. It is scheduled to play host to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics as well as the final of the World Cup, the first in Brazil since 1950.
“I was thinking about how nice it would be to be here again three years from now, but this time inside the stadium, for a World Cup final,” Nunez said. “That’s my goal now, to be back and to watch a football match at the new Maracana.”
The most recent renovations have not come without controversy, with critics saying they are too costly and filled with irregularities. Workers’ strikes also have hampered the project.
Still, the overall feeling remains one of pride.
“This is going to be good for everyone in this city and in Brazil,” said construction worker Joao Lourenco, 67. “We are proud to be working hard to get this stadium ready, we know it will be a big stage for the entire world again in just a few years.”