Windsor Park, Maine Road, Brazil
The story of stadiums is the story of the societies that surround them
You always remember your first time, they say. Mine – the night I first watched a football match in the flesh – was in the draughty old shed of the South Stand at Windsor Park in Belfast, watching Linfield against the Albanian champions 17 Nëntori [since renamed FK Tirana] in a European Cup first round game. It was 29 September 1982. Linfield had lost the first leg 1-0 the previous week in Tirana, but would surely win the second leg comfortably. After all – Albania? Where the hell was Albania? Somewhere east of France was about as much as I knew.
My father, who was a policeman, took me. We didn’t pay – my father punched the other peeler on the gate chummily on the arm, grinning and saying, “Let us in there, handsome.” He was well-known, my father, and not always in a good way. The policeman didn’t look very happy to see him. But he let us in anyway.
I was 10. It was very cold, everybody smelt of cigarettes and booze, and I think I probably started wanting to go home around the 10-minute mark. I should have – 17 Nëntori scored after 28 minutes, pretty much killing the tie – the Blues would need three1.
When the goal went in my father – who didn’t much like Linfield – jumped up from his seat and cheered. “Load of shite,” he shouted, or words to that effect. “Come on the wee Albanians!” This was in the middle of the Troubles and also around the peak of the football hooligan years. A few people near us made threatening noises and a big man with a red face stood up and came towards us. My father told him he’d be well advised to sit back down, except in considerably saltier language. The man sat down. I felt what has since become a familiar helpless, sinking feeling. Linfield were losing and my father was going to kill somebody. Things looked bad.
In the end nobody died that night at Windsor Park or even got beaten up (as far as I knew). But more than a few people ended up going home from Windsor in a (fucking or otherwise) ambulance over the years. The stadium, as football grounds often do, reflected the violence and social tensions that swirled through the streets that surrounded it.
One such example was the attack on the visiting striker Jimmy Jones in a game between the Protestant Linfield and their predominantly Catholic rivals Belfast Celtic in 19482. After Jones had broken a Linfield player’s leg in an accidental collision, the home fans were out for blood. Several Celtic players were attacked after the final whistle, and in the ensuing riot Jones, who still holds the record for the number of goals scored in an Irish League season (74) and later played for Northern Ireland, was left badly beaten and bloodied, with the injuries to his right leg making it one and a half inches shorter than his left. The sickening incident effectively brought about the demise of Belfast Celtic, who withdrew from the Irish League and folded not long after.
And there are plenty of more recent illustrations of Windsor’s toxic past. The night in November 1993 when our neighbours – but for most people in the stands, hardly friends – the Republic of Ireland clinched qualification to the 1994 World Cup amid a seething bearpit of spit and swearing is one lowlight. “I have never seen a more hostile atmosphere, not even in Turkey,” said the Republic manager Jack Charlton later.
Then there were the Belfast ‘Big Two’ clashes between Linfield and Glentoran – thuggish affairs throughout the 1980s and beyond, though as both clubs were staunchly Protestant the brawls and smashed bus windows were more a reflection of urban deprivation and hooligan violence than the poison of sectarianism.
That was not always the case, however, and Windsor’s reputation as a hostile place for Northern Ireland’s Catholic community was never particularly well-hidden. Never was that clearer than in 2001, when Neil Lennon, who had recently signed for Celtic, was aggressively abused by a section of the home crowd during a friendly international with Norway. Twelve months after that Lennon received a death threat, reportedly from Loyalist paramilitaries, before another Northern Ireland home game.
My own darkest memories of Windsor came on the spartan concrete of the Kop terrace behind the goal, with the Black Mountain and the skies that always seemed to threaten rain glowering above it, on a Saturday afternoon in January 1990. Except I wasn’t on the terrace itself, for Linfield were playing non-league Donegal Celtic in an Irish Cup tie, and the Kop was taken up by around 5,000 visiting Celtic fans – quite a step up from the club’s usual three-men-and-a-dog attendances (there were far more Linfield supporters than usual too, and it’s fair to say that most of the crowd had more primal emotions than the joys of sporting endeavour on their minds). Instead, I sat in the relative comfort of the North Stand, watching open-mouthed at the events that unfolded.
The jaw still drops today, just a little, watching the ITN news footage of that afternoon on YouTube – and opens the floodgates of memory to the shadowy world of Northern Ireland’s not so distant past.
The crowds went out of control as soon as they arrived, the newsreader says in a plummy English accent… (cut to Donegal Celtic fans hanging from the top of the floodlight pylons)… causing the kick-off to be put back half an hour… Protestant Linfield supporters broke through security cordons in their stand and massed within a distance that was within throwing range of the Donegal Celtic fans… (cut to Linfield fans running across the North Stand seats towards the Kop and then everyone chucking rocks at each other)… shortly after kick-off trouble broke out again as a missile struck a Donegal Celtic player and a Linfield fan ran onto the pitch to kick another Celtic player (cut to a behooped Celtic player falling to the ground, then a shell-suited young thug running onto the pitch and attempting to boot one of the visiting team)… at the end of the first half Donegal Celtic fans who had been trying to dismantle fencing fought with police (cut to uniformed riot police firing plastic bullets into the crowd on the Kop)… at the start of the second half the police had regrouped… (cut to a police charge into the middle of the Celtic fans)… the police again opened fire with baton rounds… (cut to general bloody mayhem on the Kop)… hijacked buses burned in the aftermath… (cut to footage, humdrum and routine in those days, of burning buses, police Land Rovers with flames licking around their tyres and water cannons).
The good old days.
None of this was Windsor’s fault, of course – at least not the bricks and mortar that made up the four diminutive mismatched stands before the ground’s modern refit. In the 1980s, as well as the Kop and the South Stand, there was the Railway Stand behind the other goal, so shabby and shrunken that it looked as though it had been borrowed from someone’s battered Subbuteo set, and on the other side of the pitch a long, unreserved terrace – heaving on at least one occasion I can remember, when Manchester United beat Liverpool 4-3 in a sweaty summer friendly – that was replaced by the North Stand in that same decade. While the new stand’s 7,000 seats and football-refit-by-Argos design quickly made it unremarkable, in grim, staid old Belfast it was as architecturally thrilling as the arrival of a Gehry art gallery.
Still, even if corrugated iron roofs and cramped wooden tip-up seats do not sing, “We’re up to our necks in Fenian blood, surrender or you’ll die,” or throw rocks at visiting fans or players, there was something about the physical presence of the old Windsor that mirrored the violence and gloom of the city around it – the hunched terraced housing of the mean streets of the Village nearby, the Lowry-esque trudge over the slippery steps of the Railway Bridge (if it wasn’t raining it had either just stopped or was just about to start), the claustrophobic squeeze through the dark, creaking turnstiles. Like Northern Ireland itself, Windsor was a parochial place and a place for men as hard as the granite steps of the Kop itself, on and off the pitch – Irish League stalwarts of the time such as David Jeffrey, Lindsay McKeown or Glentoran’s Jimmy Cleary or Alan Paterson would play hundreds of (in the case of Linfield’s Noel Baillie, over a thousand) games for their clubs and become as much a part of the local landscape as Samson and Goliath, the twin cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
When hard times are entrenched and perennial it is difficult to see change coming and so to suggest back then that things might soon be on the up would only have brought a bitter draw on an industrial strength fag or a greener hawked on the street, a raised eyebrow and a phlegmatic, “Catch yourself on, son, nothing ever changes around here.”
But change was coming, slowly. Even if tensions still simmer in certain neighbourhoods and around flashpoints like the Orange Order marching season, the 1998 Good Friday agreement brought relative peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland. The Lisburn Road, one of Windsor’s urban perimeters, has gone from a street of off-licences and DIY stores lurking behind metal window grilles to an avenue of chichi boutiques, tony coffee joints and fancy restaurants. The ground itself has changed too, both physically – with four new or entirely renovated stands – and spiritually. Just as Belfast is no longer the city of dark alleys and shadowy, murderous figures depicted in Alan Clarke’s film Elephant, so Windsor is no longer a place where half the country would fear to tread.
Community programs run by the Irish Football Association and fan based initiatives – not to mention the remarkable transformation on the pitch following the long, dark twilight that came after qualification for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups – have attempted to dispel the idea that Windsor is the exclusive redoubt of chest-thumping Loyalists.
One such fan project was the “Sea of Green” movement inspired by Gareth Todd, a member of the North of England Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club. The campaign encouraged fans to wear green Northern Ireland shirts, rather than potentially divisive club tops (Rangers or Linfield, for example) at games.
“The idea for Sea of Green came from watching the Dutch fans at Euro 2004. Watching them at a major tournament, and dreaming about being there ourselves, made me think we should do something like that,” Todd told me.
Like most Northern Ireland fans, he believes international games should be welcoming to both sides of the community. “I don’t care about what the person next to me is,” he said. “In fact, the only reason I’ll argue with him is if he’s not singing!”
The Northern Irish sportswriter Keith Baillie, author of a stirring essay on Windsor in Issue 17 of The Blizzard, agreed. “At the Belarus game [the last warm-up match before Euro 2016, which the home team won 3-0] there was a party atmosphere, and the songs were about the players, not about politics. It would be wrong to say that [sectarianism] has been eradicated completely, but we’ve moved away from the really nasty, grubby stuff,” he said.
It has been a long road, but it seems the dark, sinister old Windsor has been banished into Northern Ireland’s dark, sinister past.
Stadiums can mirror more than just the city around them, of course. I found that out on my next footballing port of call. In the 1990s, Maine Road was a reflection not only of the unrelentingly awful teams that played in it and the gloomy terraced streets of Moss Side and Rusholme that surrounded it, but also the personality of the fans that filled it.
City in those days were a far cry from the Bell-Lee-Summerbee glory days of the past and the “Agüeeerooooo!” fantasy football of the future, down on their luck, drifting between the top two (or even three) divisions and cobbling together teams made up of such luminaries as Martin “Buster” Phillips, Ged Brannan, and Lee “Bad-buy” Bradbury – all this as their neighbours (but again, hardly friends) United embarked on their glorious/stomach-turning (depending on your perspective) run of success under Alex Ferguson.
The streets around Maine Road weren’t a much more edifying prospect – England’s northern cities were rife with unemployment and scarred by social dysfunction, and in the 1990s gang violence earned Manchester the tag of ‘Gunchester’, with dozens of shootings and several deaths from firearms each year. The capital of Gunchester was Moss Side, a hop across Princess Parkway from Maine Road.
The stadium itself, once known as the Wembley of the North for its huge capacity (more than 84,000 watched City play Stoke in an FA Cup tie at the ground in 1934) had by the final decade of the last century become a down at heel, ill-designed mess – an architectural hodgepodge made up of the vast Kippax terrace down one side of the ground and three mismatched stands, the North Stand, the Main Stand and the great gaping barn of the Platt Lane behind one goal.
It was the revamp of the Platt Lane that was to become a symbol for City’s limitations under then chairman, local radio and TV rental panjandrum Peter Swales. City fans hated Swales not just because his teams were always rubbish or for being, as Malcolm Allison put it, “a little man with a scrape-over hairdo”, but because of his small-town, parochial penny-pinching. And never was his corner-shop mentality more evident than in the building of the Umbro Stand to replace the cavernous but dilapidated Platt Lane in 1993. As United won the title for the first time in 25 years and Ferguson’s reign of terror over English football began, Swales unveiled a stand that was like a slightly bigger version of those weird glass-fronted executive boxes/bungalows at Luton’s Kenilworth Road. Or the patio doors of a time-share apartment on the Costa del Sol. Or a second-hand car showroom. The paltry few dozen rows of seats in front of the boxes meant Maine Road’s capacity was cut to around 34,000.
The Umbro Stand was pathetic and, as the rest of English football built gleaming footballing palaces post-Taylor Report, a crushing disappointment. Just as City were generally pathetic and a crushing disappointment. It felt like a visual, architectural representation of Swales and the club’s lack of ambition. Standing on a viscerally despondent, half-empty Kippax at one night game around then – a 3-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in 1994 towards the end of Swales’s time in charge – it even seemed as though City might not survive at all. The cover of the match program that night said it all – “John Bond tips [striker] Carl Griffiths for stardom.” Poor Carl’s career path after leaving City a year or so later? Portsmouth, Peterborough, Leyton Orient, Wrexham, Port Vale…
Even when the Swales Out protests finally bore fruit and the Forward with Franny [Lee] campaign won out, things got worse, rather than better. Lee put his pal Alan Ball in charge and City plunged into the third flight of English football.
Before the games I drank in The Salutation pub nestled between the Poly and the impoverished Hulme inner city neighbourhood with friends with names like Muggy, Coppo, Griz, Fossy and, um, Pete. All were students or had what seemed like joyless jobs, and, like City, no one ever had any money.
It was a 25-minute walk to Maine Road, but just as it always rained in Belfast so it was always freezing in Manchester, and so we stayed in the warmth of the pub until quarter to three, ten to three, three o’clock, ten past three. What did it matter? City were shit and it was bound to be a crap game anyway. Though they weren’t always shit – on one such dismal smoke grey afternoon in 1996 a couple of us finally dragged ourselves away from the Boddingtons and the Merrydown cider and trudged to the ground, leaving the rest in the pub. Those who went got lucky – City were playing Southampton, and Georgi Kinkladze scored. If you don’t know the significance of that, be thankful you live in the Internet age and google it.
An (un)favourite personal memory of City in those days is an away trip to Liverpool when Ball was in charge. As we finished our pints in a pub near Anfield, the radio behind the bar announced that Liverpool had gone 1-0 up just a few seconds after kick-off. As we walked down the street outside the away end we heard the cheers that marked the second goal. Pushing through the turnstiles, Liverpool scored their third. To get to our seats behind the goal, we had to walk along the front of the away crowd and up a staircase alongside the home fans. Safely behind a fence, a Liverpool fan suggested to me that City weren’t very good and might possibly be relegated that year (again, in considerably saltier language than that). I responded in equally salty language, aided and abetted with hand signals just in case he failed to understand, that I did not care very much for his opinion, just before a policeman wrapped his arm around my neck and dragged me into the toilets, where he explained that as I seemed “a decent lad” he was just going to kick me out and not charge me with breaching the peace. Not actually being arrested spoiled my plans of a heroic Free the Belfast One campaign and so I left and caught the next train back to Manchester. The game finished 6-0 to Liverpool, and Alan Ball said the next day that he had enjoyed watching Liverpool’s performance.
Faced with their weird stadium and their rubbish team, City fans reacted in the only way possible – through dark, cynical, gallows humour. In Brazil, where I live now and where the football supporting culture is built around a hubristic but ultimately superficial and sporadic fanaticism, the only acceptable answer to the question, “Think we’ll win?” is “Of course! 5-0 at least!” In the dour pubs around Maine Road, in those days, the proper answer was “Nah. Probably get stuffed.” Forget the sky blue-soaked triumphalism of Oasis’s glory days – the City fan and professional misanthrope Mark E Smith, sardonic, acerbic frontman of the Fall, has always been the club’s true musical voice.
A surrealist fad of bringing inflatable bananas (and inflatable crocodiles, and inflatable Pink Panthers, and paddling pools) took hold in the late 1980s, culminating with 12,000 fans making a Boxing Day trip to Stoke in 1988 resplendent in fancy dress. Even the players carried blow-up bananas onto the pitch that day, before ruining the party (as usual) by losing 3-1. The psychological interpretations of the inflatables movement are many, but the view I liked the best was that it was a way of bringing brightness and humour to otherwise grim physical and psychological environments – the beach at Benidorm transplanted to the depressed and violent streets and football terraces of the time. There were echoes of the same unreal spirit in the “We are not, we are not really here,/ Just like the fans/ Of the invisible man,/ We’re not really here” chant that became an anthem when City visited places like Lincoln and York (and lost) in Division Two.
After all, what else is there apart from laughter in the dark when your team is rubbish, your rivals are winning everything, and the baleful lens of the Umbro Stand windows is there to reflect and magnify your failures at every home game? Humour was the only defence City had against United, whose fans were smug, successful both in football and life, and never, ever funny.
Then, of course, the whole world turned upside down. The magnificent Kippax, the heartbeat of City’s spirit and City fans’ terrace humour was knocked down – I was part of the emotional, billowing throng that filled it on its last day, when City drew 2-2 with Chelsea – and replaced with the joyless new Kippax Stand. It wasn’t as bad as the Umbro, but it was still rubbish, because nobody sang anymore and everyone had numbered seats and the inseparable band of brothers Muggy, Coppo, Griz, Fossy and Pete were picked up and flung to the far corners of the stand, in-game bonding now limited to forlorn little waves over a sea of heads.
City moved to Eastlands/the Commonwealth Stadium/the City of Manchester Stadium in 2003 and the ghosts of the club’s glories and failures were wiped away in one fell swoop. Like that other monument to the pills and thrills and hangover headaches of Manchester’s violent, thrilling, pharmaceutically-enhanced 1990s, the Hacienda, Maine Road was sold off and knocked down and turned into flats, and the memories of the past became so faint they were almost invisible.
That move changed City forever. As David Conn, author of Richer Than God, a book on City’s transformation from penniless ugly duckling to fabulously wealthy swan and the dark financial underbelly of modern football, explains, moving into what is now the Etihad was a vital part of the process that led to Sheik Mansour’s massive investment and that “Agüeeerooooo!” moment, and now Pep and signings like Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus (why not? The money’s there, and City always has been the spiritual home of the surreal).
Like the Umbro and the Kippax Stands, though, Eastlands was bobbins, too, at least at first. That inseparable band of brothers Muggy, Coppo, Griz, Fossy and Pete were picked up and flung to even further apart corners of the stand. Worse, you couldn’t smoke in the corridors or the seats – an offence against Mancunian human rights that even the new Kippax had dared not broker – and there were no decent pubs near the ground. There weren’t even enough buses, so often the only way back to town was an endless trudge along the (freezing) canal.
But it was progress, and Manchester was progressing too, with the dark satanic mills and warehouses transformed into loft apartments and shiny theme pubs making the city centre look as anonymous as Croydon or Coventry. The developers’ voracious makeover continues today, with the Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville-backed project to build two enormous bronze skyscrapers containing hotels, retail outlets, apartments, restaurants and bars in the city centre described by heritage bodies as “a planning disaster of a magnitude not seen in decades”.
There is no doubt too that City have lost part of their identity. The crop of local or almost local lads such as Paul Lake, David White, Andy Hinchcliffe, Steve Redmond and Ian Brightwell that made up the spine of the team that beat United 5-1 in 1989 is unlikely to be repeated. The Etihad has never managed to recreate the anarchic atmosphere of Maine Road, and there are no gags or gallows humour at the stadium either – though almost blowing the league before the “Agüeeerooooo!” moment looked like it was going to be a perfect addition to the City joke book. After all, it’s hard to claim you wish you “weren’t really here” when you’re sitting at the City of Manchester Stadium watching a team of phenomenally talented superstars play Barcelona in the Champions League. Muggy, Coppo, Griz, Fossy and Pete all have good jobs and a bit of money these days, and like council estate kids made good, they and the rest of the City fans are no doubt happy that life is easier and better in their new home than it was at Maine Road. But just like those council estate kids, they must also look back to those impoverished, knockabout days amid the terraced streets of south Manchester with nostalgia, and just a little bit of longing.
Football stadiums do not only reflect transformation, however. Sadly, they can also show that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Never has that been more evident than in Brazil, a world away from the sepulchral weather and joyless post-industrial streets of Belfast and Manchester. Once the World Cup 2014 party was over and the morning after analysis had begun, it did not take long for grounds such as the rebuilt Maracanã, where Mario Götze scored Germany’s winner in the final against Argentina, or the (white) elephantine Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha in Brasília, to become shrines not to o pais do futebol (the football nation), but to the darkness that lies at the heart of Brazilian society.
That it was not more obvious at the time is testimony to the hallucinogenic power of the LSD of the masses that is the modern day sporting mega-event. Prior to 2014, Brazil’s football stadiums were prehistoric, dangerous concrete jungles, populated almost exclusively by the poorer sections of society. From Belo Horizonte to Recife, most middle-class football fans I met would throw their hands up like scandalised Victorian aunts and whinny with fear if I suggested taking in a game at the Mineirão or Arruda. It was an unnecessarily hysterical response – I have been to hundreds of games in Brazil over the last 12 years and have only rarely felt in fear of my life – but perhaps based on a crumb of truth. According to Lance! magazine, there were at least 296 football-related murders in Brazil between 1988 and 2016.
The World Cup was going to change all that. Twelve stadiums were to be built or renovated for the event, while Palmeiras and Grêmio announced they would be constructing football pleasure palaces of their own, and the tournament and its venues were going to fix everything that was wrong with Brazilian football. They were going to invigorate the game in far-flung regions such as the Amazon and the vast plains of the west of the country. They were going to bring the middle-classes back to the stadiums and boost attendances, which in 2013 averaged a risible 15,000 in the top division. They would be a symbol for the glorious ascension of the país do futuro, the country of the future, to the global top table.
Except the future, once again for Brazil, has proved elusive. The country’s economic boom years under the president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ground to a halt under his successor Dilma Rousseff as the China-led global commodities boom slowed. And the Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car-Wash”) probe into political and economic corruption has revealed the venality that runs through the veins of the country’s ruling establishment.
The scale of the revelations has left even scandal-weary Brazilians agog. Untold billions of dollars have been syphoned off from state-run oil giant Petrobras in hidden campaign payments and bribes, and in April this year the Supreme Court authorised the investigation of more than 100 politicians, including two dozen senators and 42 congressmen and women. Last year’s congressional vote to impeach Rousseff was a nightmarish, Boschian spectacle, as a jeering, baying mob of politicians pushed and shoved each other, fired confetti guns into the air and slavered and roared about how their votes were dedicated to their wives, husbands, children, grandparents, and, in one very special moment, the general who had tortured Rousseff during the military dictatorship.
The crepuscular vice-president Michel Temer then took over and promptly became the first sitting Brazilian president in history to be formally charged with a crime, after a close aide was filmed fleeing a pizza restaurant with a briefcase containing around US$160,000 and Temer himself was taped (allegedly) authorising payments to buy the silence of the jailed former head of congress Eduardo Cunha. While Temer has since won a congressional vote to defeat the charges, largely by doling out favours to his political allies, his approval ratings remain lower than the temperatures on one of those freezing night games at Windsor or Maine Road. Meanwhile, with the economy stuck in reverse and 14 million unemployed, Brazil threatens to sink below the waves.
Amid such high drama, the skulduggery involving the World Cup venues has largely remained beneath the radar. But with seemingly every public department or infrastructure project in Brazil tainted by the black brush of corruption, it comes as no surprise to find now that they too are mired in the muck.
“Bribery Arenas!” howled glossy news mag Veja last year, claiming that fraudulent overbudgeting at five of the World Cup stadiums had run to around $470 million. By May this year the number of venues reportedly involved had grown, with executives-turned- informants from the Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez construction companies implicated in the Lava-Jato investigations claiming that nine of the twelve grounds had been used as hubs for crimes such as bribery, the formation of cartels, and the running of slush funds. Only the Estádio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba and the Arena Pantanal in Cuiabá were not mentioned, although the last named has been cited in other investigations.
The list of corruption schemes involving the stadiums is long. A Supreme Court enquiry into the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo is investigating “possible criminal practices associated with the construction” of the stadium, based on the reports of five Oebrecht executives, while it has been reported that the Maracanã was one of the sources of illicit income of jailed former Rio governor Sergio Cabral. The stadium recently fell into disrepair and had its electricity cut off as the various bodies involved in its management bickered over costs, while the same knotted legal tangle and the expense of playing at the stadium has prevented any of Rio’s clubs from becoming the venue’s permanent tenants, with Flamengo and Fluminense using it only sporadically. Whistle-blowers have described the rarely used Estádio Mané Garrincha in Brasília as a “bottomless well of corruption” involving bribery payments and overbudgeting on a vast scale, and police have said the construction of the Arena Pernambuco in Recife was the result of a “criminal organisation”.
“Paraphrasing [legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter] Milton Nasci mento, the corrupt go where the money is. And obviously at the World Cup it was in the arenas and the urban mobility projects required for the event,’’ Gil Castelo Branco, the general-secretary of the NGO Contas Abertas (Open Accounts) told Brazil’s Estadão newspaper in May.
Even from the perspective of Brazilian football, the success of the more than US$3billion invested in World Cup stadiums has been mixed. After a brief initial spike, average Serie A attendances have once again flatlined at around 15,000, around 41% of total stadium capacity, this season. While the marketing nous and accounting transparency of Brazil’s clubs has improved in recent years, their finances remain entirely dependent on selling players to Europe and spending their TV money advances as soon as they get their hands on them. Football violence remains rife, with pitched running battles fought between Corinthians and Vasco fans across the still shiny new seats of the Estádio Mané Garrincha just a few months after the World Cup and a number of recent torcida organizada [ultra groups] related deaths.
At least, like the violent atmosphere at Windsor Park and British hooligan culture in the 1980s and 1990s, this last problem can hardly be laid at the feet of the stadiums themselves. With around 60,000 murders in Brazil every year, it can be argued that football-related deaths merely reflect, once again, the problems of wider society.
In the light of the Lava Jato revelations the stench of failure and corruption that surrounds the World Cup stadiums is hardly a surprise. Just like the Maracanã, a number of venues and athletes’ facilities of the 2016 Olympics have, sadly and inevitably, also fallen into ruin, shaming those who would trumpet the success or legacy of hosting such events, especially in a country as wracked by violence, inequality and social problems as Brazil. Among the blessings that the Olympics has left in its wake in Rio de Janeiro, for example, are the effective bankruptcy of the state government, a public university on the verge of closure, hospitals shutting down and 9,000 soldiers on the streets to assist a police force who do not always receive their wages.
Unlike the happy endings that the new stadiums of Belfast and Manchester have come to represent, then, it appears that many of the stately pleasure domes of the World Cup will serve only as scars left by the seemingly never-ending sickness of the country’s political class. But whether in chilly, rainy Belfast and Manchester or sun-drenched Brazil, it seems that football stadiums will go on reflecting the world around them, both good and bad.