The 1950 World Cup, Brazil and the Maracanã Stadium

Bernardo Buarque de Hollanda discusses the 1950 World Cup stadium debate.

In 1947, the debate over the construction of a football stadium in Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital city, took place. At that time, football had already transcended its amateur boundaries. Brazil’s first public stadium, the Pacaembu Municipal Stadium in São Paulo, was inaugurated in the 1940s. Following this landmark event, it was decided that a large-capacity public stadium should be built in the nation’s capital. That arena would be the Municipal Stadium of Rio de Janeiro, or Maracanã – the name of a nearby river – as it is usually called.

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The Maracanã stadium under construction in the 1940s.


Until the creation of the Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro’s largest stadia were the medium-sized ones that were affiliated with the city’s football teams. Considered grandiose achievements in their day, some of these renowned stadia were developed for the hosting of major international football competitions. This, for example, was the case for Fluminense’s stadium, which was established in the early years of Brazilian football when the game was an amateur preserve of the upper classes. Located in a wealthy area of southern Rio, on land owned by the Guinle family, it was inaugurated in 1919 for the third South American Championship.

Another noteworthy example was the stadium of the Club of Vasco da Gama. A milestone in the popularization of football, the stadium was constructed in 1927 in the old royal borough of São Cristóvão, a district of northern Rio de Janeiro. With a capacity of forty thousand spectators, São Januário was the largest sporting arena in Latin America until the construction of Montevideo’s Estádio Centenário, which was built for the World Cup tournament hosted by Uruguay in 1930.

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Crowds storm the barriers of the unfinished stadium to watch the first game of the tournament in 1950.


The need to accommodate the demand for larger sports arenas became more urgent in 1947, when FIFA announced that in 1950 Brazil would host the fourth World Cup. The choice came after a long interval without tournaments, due to World War II. Both the federal and local authorities soon realized the urgency of building a stage that would meet the high standards that were expected.

The intention was to overcome the symbolic limitations inherent in a stadium that was not only associated with a particular football club, but also linked to a dictatorial regime; under President Getúlio Vargas, São Januário had been used to stage political rallies and civic parades with overwhelmingly ideological content. The journalist Mário Filho, a great enthusiast of the 1950 tournament and a member of the organizing committee, was the host and was handed the task of chaperoning FIFA’s long-time president, Jules Rimet.

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Storming the barriers at the Maracanã.


Once the decision was made to build a new stadium in Rio, a great debate arose as to where it should be located. The controversy generated intense disagreement between the city’s legislative representatives, with entirely different proposals being raised by two of the most well-known city council members representing the right-wing UDN, in Rio’s Municipal Assembly. On one side was Carlos Lacerda, an adversary of the mayor, who supported construction on the very edge of the city – in the far-off western district of Jacarepaguá.  His key opponent was Ary Barroso, a celebrated sports radio broadcaster, who was in favour of a location somewhere in the city centre.

After heated exchanges, the city government went with the second option, which had also won over the Council, and decided that the stadium would be constructed in a location considered uniformly distant to the different sections of the city, a point of spatial, economic and social convergence. The political reasoning behind the decision was based on the idea that the chosen location in northern Rio was strategic for the capital’s image, due to its role as an intersecting point between southern Rio and the more distant suburbs.

This meant that the stadium would symbolically link the two extremes of the nation’s capital, becoming what anthropologist José Sérgio Leite Lopes called the “heart of Brazil”.

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The stadium was reconstructed for the 2014 World Cup tournament and used in the 2016 Olympic Games.


A public competition selected architects and engineers with experience in the construction of sports arenas. A group of six architects prevailed over the five other competing plans that had made it to the final round of the competition. Amongst them was Oscar Niemayer. While not yet having achieved the stature of being Brazil’s leading architect, something that would come with his involvement in the construction of Brasília, Niemayer had been part of Lúcio Costa’s team which had built the strikingly modernist Ministry of Education and Health building.

Despite lacking authorization of the vanguard group in Brazil, the stadium was nevertheless incorporated into a grandiose discourse. Created in a monumental, typically Brazilian form, it was compared to the colossal effort of building a modern nation. Inaugurated on 16 June 1950, the stadium was built by ten thousand workers in twenty-two months between 1948 and 1950. The site’s perimeter encompassed almost 190,000m² and made use of a massive 500,000 bags of cement. The project, carried out by six contractors, used some 10,000 tons of iron beams, 650,000 m² of wood and 80,000m³ of concrete.  According to contemporary newspaper reports, if stacked, the bags would reach twice the height of Rio’s Sugar Loaf Mountain.

In the political heart of Brazil, the Maracanã’s task would be to serve as the most effective testament to the nation’s claim of being a great power – and thus its grandiose designation as “the world’s greatest stadium”. Though built for 150,000 spectators, it was able to handle up to 200,000 people – equal to about ten percent of what was then the entire population of Rio. In order to reach these numbers, the architects had to scrap their original plan for an Olympic stadium and removed the athletics track from the blueprint. This would create standing spaces for hundreds more people, situated around and nearby the pitch, areas that would come to be known as the Geral.

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A photo from inside the stadium shows the extra standing space created at the cost of the athletics track.


The international stature of the World Cup required great efforts regarding the hosting of foreign visitors. Football fulfilled a diplomatic role. Through it, the state, in the midst of a re-democratization process, would exhibit its national virtues to the world, and would thus promote educational campaigns to encourage good manners amongst the general public. As host to European countries still shaken by the traumas of totalitarianism, the economic limitations of a young South American nation were offset by the civility and good behaviour of Brazilian supporters, projected as reflecting the “people” as a whole.

The Country of Football: Politics, Popular Culture, and the Beautiful Game in Brazil

Edited by Paulo Fontes and Bernardo Buarque de Hollanda

Paperback • June 2014 • £16.99 • 9781849044172 • 240pp

Now half price on our website with worldwide shipping. Click here.

Cover photo by Arthur Boppré (Maracanã (Viagem helicóptero)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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