Maracana turns 70: Celebrating one of the world's great stadiums

Pele: Mexico 1970 the highlight of my Brazil career (0:55)

Brazilian legend Pele explains why winning the World Cup in Mexico was his best memory in a Brazil shirt. (0:55)

One of football's great venues is turning 70. It was on June 16, 1950, that the first game was played in Rio de Janeiro's giant Maracana stadium.

Like some giant spaceship parked to the north of the city centre, the Maracana is awe inspiring today. Seven decades ago a trip to the stadium must have felt like time travel -- it was built with the idea of carrying Brazil straight onto the top table of the global game

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The inaugural match, between teams from Rio and Sao Paulo, was a test event. The real thing, starting a few days later, was the fourth World Cup ever -- Brazil hoped to win it. Thumping victories over Mexico and Yugoslavia established them as candidates, second round thrashings of Sweden and Spain (7-1 and 6-1 respectively) set them up as favourites. There were famous scenes of singing, dancing and handkerchief waving in the huge concrete stands. Something like 200,000 crammed in for the last game against Uruguay, when the hosts needed just a draw to seal the trophy and the mayor of Rio proclaimed them as champions before the kick off.

The gods of football have a habit of punishing such hubris and, in what remains the most famous game ever played in the stadium, the Uruguayans came from behind to score two late goals, silence the crowd and set off a national trauma known today as the Maracanazo.

The Maracana was the stage for Garrincha to turn the game into a type of bullfighting where nobody died, but hundreds of left-backs were humiliated. In the black and white stripes of Botafogo, the legendary right winger may have given more pleasure to fans in the stadium than anyone in the history of the game.

Pele also had a special relationship with the Maracana. His team, Santos, were not from Rio but their magnificent play won them a national support base, and brought some of their big games to the Maracana -- such as the home legs of the finals of the Intercontinental Cup against Benfica and Milan in 1962 and 1963. By happy coincidence, Pele's 1000th goal was scored in the stadium, when Santos visited Vasco da Gama in 1969. And when he had gone, the baton passed to Zico, who gave weekly recitals of his genius in the red and black of Flamengo. Even Neymar has had his Maracana moment: The penalty that sealed Brazil's long awaited first Olympic football gold medal in 2016. The old stadium truly is the venue of legends.

It is also fundamental to the folklore of the Brazilian game. It has been the scene of many famous incidents; a Flamengo fan smuggling in a vulture and throwing it onto the field, turning an offense aimed at the club's fans into a badge of honour; Rivelino siding down the tunnel steps on his backside in his haste to get away from a chasing horde of Uruguayans after an ill tempered game; Dario Silva of Uruguay charging behind the goal to use the phone box after scoring in a World Cup qualifier.

The Maracana went through a major rebuild for the 2014 World Cup, and reopened a year earlier with a 2-2 draw against England. The choice of opponents was appropriate. England played their first-ever World Cup match in the Maracana -- a 2-0 win over Chile. And a few days later they suffered their first ever World Cup elimination in the same venue, going down 1-0 to Spain.

Many have mourned the passing of the old Maracana, with some justification. Something has clearly been lost -- especially the cheap ring of standing room at the bottom of the stadium, known as the geral. The view was poor, but, like Shakespeare's groundlings, the geral public added greatly to the atmosphere. They have now been priced out.

Meanwhile, the original shell of the stadium was untouched, meaning that the slope of the stands remains narrow, so fans are still a long way from the pitch. The new Maracana, then, has lost some of the inclusive spirit of the old, without introducing the improved sight lines of the modern stadium -- and all at an immense cost to the local taxpayer.

Today's Maracana may not be ideal, but it retains its charm. The second half of last year was a magical time for the stadium, with Flamengo packing out the ground as they played a swashbuckling style of football on the way to the Brazilian and South American titles. They played a brand of football more exciting than anything the local public had seen for years -- and many fell in love with the sport for the first time, or rediscovered an old passion, watching them do it.

The coronavirus interrupted things in a big way: Part of the complex around the stadium has been turned into a field hospital. It is not yet clear when football will return, and even more difficult to predict when fans might be allowed into the stadium, so the short term future of the Maracana is unclear.

In the long run, though, one of the game's iconic, imposing venues will surely add plenty of new chapters to its glorious history.