Asa-El's Israel: A Jerusalemite at the Maracana

The Post's most veteran columnist on what's making the headlines and what's not.

October 24, 2006 11:03
Asa-El's Israel: A Jerusalemite at the Maracana

maracana 298. (photo credit: Maracana web site)


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  • Amotz Asa-El's bio
  • Middle Israel: Reform, Olmert style What Catholics feel at the Holy Sepulcher, Elvis fans at Graceland and Communists at Lenin's Tomb, soccer fans feel upon sight of Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium. It's certainly what I felt as I approached that whale of a structure last Sunday afternoon for the live-or-die clash between the local Flamengo and Sao Paolo's Corinthians. The game's excitement was palpable already at the spotless Siqueira Campos subway station, where squadrons of fans in Flamengo's black and red uniform filled the train with cheers and chants as it sliced its way between Corcovado summit, where that famous Jesus statue seems to perennially bless Brazil, and the Babylon favela, a vast slum where Christ's blessing has yet to arrive. Even from afar, let alone from within, Rio's pavelas immediately remind Israelis of Palestinian refugee camps like Shati, Daheisha and Balata, with all their despair, wrath, and lawlessness. Yet at the stadium, where I was warned to bring no valuables, I merged with Rio's downtrodden, thousands of whom now flocked to the game, some carrying on their shoulders drums not unlike the pots in which Israeli street vendors boil corn cobs. Once at my seat, after having journeyed a good fifteen minutes through the endless bare-cement corridor that begins by the sign Estadio Mario Filho (a sports journalist, I am told) and the seven bare-cement pillars that shoulder it, I closed my eyes, swallowed the crowd's colors, noise and enthusiasm, and imagined the Maracana's most famous moment, that spring day in 1950 when 200,000 people gathered here expecting to see Brazil win the World Cup, only to see it stunned 2-1 by tiny Uruguay in one of soccer's biggest upsets ever. Last week's game was of course just a league match, and even as such not quite the showdown you get when Flamengo, which - my friend Renato Aizenman explains - is massively backed by the favela-dwellers, meets Vasco da Gama, which is identified with the Portuguese community. The stadium, too, has long ceased to admit its original capacity due to various logistical and regulatory reasons. In fact, last week its entire lower rim of seats was closed for renovations, as it too was being coated with plastic seats, in line with FIFA standards for international competition. Still, the seats held a good 60,000 people, and when the first of Flamengo's three unanswered goals swam deep within the Corinthians' net the crowd's eruption was so volcanic that for a second I wondered whether that was what my forebears heard at Mt. Sinai. And yet, with all due respect to the size, color, noise, spontaneous samba and joyous soccer I saw there - something was amiss at the Maracana. Maybe it was the knowledge that Brazil's greatest stars, like everyone else's, no longer play for the local audience. The days when Zico scored 333 goals in 435 games for Flamengo, mostly here, now seem like prehistory; had he played today he would have been with Barcelona, Arsenal, or Juventus. Maybe it was the very vastness of the stadium, which to a thoroughbred Jerusalemite, while impressive, is at the end of the day dizzying. And maybe it's just the banalization of spectator sports, with those ubiquitous Nike commercials by the electronic scoreboard, the sponsors' logos on the players' shirts, pants and - I imagine - underwear, too, and those stupid crane-mounted video cameras behind every soccer field's two goals, which make you wonder how it is that the more obsessively soccer gets documented and analyzed, the less it is inventive, effective and entertaining. Either way, the bottom line for me is that even after this pilgrimage my ultimate soccer memory still remains in the place that by any geometric, athletic or demographic yardstick would be the Maracana's antithesis: the old Hapoel Jerusalem pitch. HAVING GROWN UP in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood well before the city's globalization and the neighborhood's gentrification, my soccer prism was forged in that stadium, which was to soccer what Cinema Paradiso was to film. Seating about 10,000 fans, its seats were essentially chilly and prickly cement beams, if one does not count the assorted second, third and fourth-story balconies that overlooked the field from the surrounding apartment buildings. Our Hapoel never won the national championship, but usually finished a respectable 6th or 5th place, and its stars, most notably Eli Ben-Rimozh and Zvi Singal, were for us Pele, Cruyf and Platini put together. There was no subway leading to the Hapoel field, or to anything else in Jerusalem for that matter, but it must have been the world's only premier-league soccer stadium to sit where a street named after the biblical Rachel meets another named after King Hezekiah, and the only one that had no parking lot at all, but on the other had a vibrant ultra-Orthodox yeshiva across the street from it. Having passed by it, and heard its students studying and praying, every afternoon on my way back home from Zehava's kindergarten on Yoash Street, I always wondered what it was like to sit in that yeshiva on a Saturday afternoon facing a holy book, or listening to a white-bearded rabbi's sermon, when the crowd's shout g-o-a-l suddenly invaded the study hall, rattling its every door, window and lamp. Perhaps the rabbi, just once, for the heck of it, lifted his arms skywards and to his students' astonishment also cried "goal"? We certainly did, though not from within the stadium. We kids would try and peak into it through a crack in its back wall, by the abandoned British officers' club off, by today's tennis courts off of Elroy Street. The field had its fair share if pits and bald spots, but the seats seemed to be always full to capacity. And when we couldn't access that crack, our sport was to guess the score according to the volume and music of the crowd's cheers and jeers. A-a-a-a-h-h-h was taken for our goal, e-e-e-e-h-h-h-h for almost, and o-h-h-h-h for a goal by the visitors. For Mayor Teddy Kollek all this was less romantic then I make it sound. The city, he kept saying, deserved a decent stadium, and residential areas deserved quiet. After struggling for decades with the ultra-Orthodox, who opposed the construction of a solid stadium in Jerusalem, he finally had it his way, and got Malha's Teddy Stadium built. Katamon was therefore summarily razed, and gave way to a rectangle of upper-middle class apartment buildings whose residents doubtfully realize how the ground they now habitually defile with everyday life's trivialities, once was to thousands sacred. Now Jerusalemites go to Teddy. Handsome, tall, brightly lit, professionally manicured and surrounded by spacious parking lots, it's a real stadium, if even no Maracana - it could fit in there a good five times. Yet it also is no Katamon. Frankly, neither is Maracana.

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