The first our taxi driver notices the Flamengo strip on Matt is about 20 minutes or so of erratic driving into our trip from the Rio bus station to our hotel in Lapa. He turns around and gives the thumbs down “not good” he states in Portuguese to Matt who’s been in the country all of a week. To be fair to Matt he is more concerned about the driving than the gentle chastising he is getting for choosing the biggest club in Rio to support for his holiday. Next on the list for telling off is Lili. She has opted for a museum rather than the Fla-Flu classico. “But this is culture, this is more than a game, this is life” he states. Well, that’s why we are here. To sample culture. To enjoy life.
We finally get checked into the nearest Days Inn after our brief attempt to check into a local brothel gets noticed and the situation rescued by Lili. Things they don’t tell you on trip advisor! And so we set off to the Maracana. If Brazil is some spiritual home of sexy football then the Maracana is its temple. Home of Fluminense and the setting for two world cup finals this is the stadium in South America that we’ve all heard of since childhood. We opt to get there three hours early on the advice of our taxi driver. He seems to think that it will take that long to collect our tickets and while I’m skeptical I’m aware that there will be beer and atmosphere to be soaked in. Turns out I am right. Tickets retrieved with minimal fuss it is time to grab some cans of Brahma and take a walk around the old place. They say never meet your heroes and from the outside I’m beginning to think the same might be said of your favourite football satdiums. A ramshackle concrete bowl low set amongst the motorway flyovers and derelict buildings doesn’t inspire much hope. The atmosphere outside is cordial with fans mixing and enjoying drinks together and as the Rio sun scorches down (the first glimpse in over a week- sorry Matt) I’m beginning to think this might not be the worst way to spend a Saturday afternoon after all.
As my third beer goes down I get to thinking about other derbies I’ve been to. In Argentina I made the pilgrimage to Monumental to see the Superclassico, River x Boca. When lists are drawn up of the must see games in life this always seems to come up top. My experience was an amazing one, being in with the Ultras and right in the midst of the flares and tifos. However, with the lack of away fans due to previous years of violence it was missing something.What’s a rivalry without a rival? The same can be said of the Sao Paulo derbies that I have attended between Palmeiras and Sao Paulo or Corinthians respectively. Full houses and full of action but no away fans leaves a surreal feeling. Maybe I’m unusual or maybe it is my upbringing but half the fun of a derby match is having your mortal enemy within yelling distance. To be able to spout range at them for 90 minutes then meet your pals from the other side for a pint after and disagree about what you’ve just seen. This brings me to the derby I was raised on and attended numerous times. For me, the best will always be the Old Firm. Anyway, here I am in Rio, with a mix of fans and an open mind. Could this be the best? Is this life? It is time to see what this derby is made of.
The feeling of walking into any stadium for the first time is something special. Finding your way up the stairs, the light at the end of the tunnel, the glorious green pitch coming into sight. In this respect the Maracana doesn’t disappoint. Rejuvenated for the 2014 World Cup but not well maintained the stadium manages to mix old world charm with a comfortable viewing arena. We take our seats and watch the warm up. The stadium begins to fill and to our surprise a man selling beer comes past our seats. Having watched most of my Brazilian football in Sao Paulo’s teetotal stadiums this is a welcome surprise. My mind casts back to the stands of Parkhead and the mayhem such a scheme would cause come derby day! As more people enter we notice there is indeed an away end and a home with vocal support but unbelievably for a game of this magnitude it isn’t a sell out. The 50,000 or so that have filled into the stadium give it their best and the teams come out to fanfare and cheerleading. And here is probably as good as it gets. The game starts. Flamengo cruise to an early lead which befits their status of title challengers against their mid-table enemies. They add two more to their score sheet, each goal met with a cacophony of firecrackers. The beers keep coming as the sunsets over the Maracana. Flamengo have won and Matt is happy. As we set off to find a taxi to take us to our non-brothel hotel Matt is happy man- better than a day at the museum we agree. I wonder if our first driver of the day would still agree.