Soccer City: Brasília – an idea that hasn’t captured football

NATION capitals are very often not the seat of power in football – London, for example, has enjoyed periods of domination, but over the course of the past 50 years, Manchester and Liverpool have been England’s dominant cities as far as the beautiful game is concerned.

Across Europe, a similar tale is told – Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Austria, to name but a few, have seen their capitals challenged and usurped by other cities.

Brasília, the capital of Brazil since April 1960, is different to so many other principal cities, chiefly because it was a purpose-built metropolis for administering a somewhat fragmented country. There are no long-established football clubs in the way both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have the game firmly embedded in their psyche, culture and history.

Today, Brasília has no representatives in the top levels of Brazilian football. It has a notable stadium that hosted games during the 2014 World Cup, but the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha remains a somewhat ghostly place that has been used for a number of different events, but rarely major football.

Tattoo conventions and culinary events have been held at the stadium and it is also used as a bus depot by the local authority, but it sits in a barren landscape and has become shabby. The general consensus tells us there is not a strong appetite to bring top football back to Brasília even though like all Brazilian cities, there are thousands and thousands of passionate fans.

The original stadium dated back to 1974 but the rebuild was designed to make a grand statement for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. With a total cost of US$ 900 million, three times the envisaged bill, It is the third most expensive stadium ever built. As white elephants go, it’s one of the biggest. State officials have hinted it was a mistake to build such a structure in a city like Brasília and have calculated that it will take 100 years to recoup just 12% of the overall cost.

Brasília, of course, is a city renowned for its ambitious and striking architecture. When the city was built in the late 1950s – it took just four years – Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, along with structural engineer Joaquim Cardozo created a number of breathtaking buildings which kick-started the Brazilian modernism movement. Brasília, which was seen at an attempt at creating a utopian city, sat at the heart of the Distrito Federal, a new capital for the nation in an area that was largely undeveloped. In 1960, the population was around 136,000 but today, Brasília has over 2.5 million people. It is regarded as a relatively affluent place, notably around the Plano Pilato, the centre of the city, but elsewhere there are slums and poverty.

In 1960, Brazil was considered one of the homes of the modern game, their national team won the 1958 World Cup and retained it in 1962, and their football was admired the world over.

It takes time to establish a football team, but in a country with legendary names like Flamengo, Corinthians, Santos, Botafogo and Fluminense, all from Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, it’s not just about creating something attractive, it’s also a lot to do with changing mindsets. The top clubs from Rio and São Paulo have bigger fanbases in Brasília than any local team has ever had. The people moving to the new capital, largely civil servants and construction workers, brought their club allegiances with them.

These cities have dominated a Brazilian football culture that incorporates beaches, favelas and street football. Brasília’s problem is that many have seen it as being “unBrazilian” in that it has lacked the dynamic of the rich living alongside the poor. While this includes extreme suffering and high crime rates, it also cultivates a form of creative tension and aspiration among young people hell-bent on escaping the deprivation through football. But it could be changing as Brasília confronts classic Brazilian problems of inequality, congestion and urban sprawl.

Many footballers have come from poor and deprived neighbourhoods but the Federal District has produced some excellent players, such as Kaká, who was born in Gama, close to Brasília.

Creating new, local clubs with a credible following has always been difficult, some have been formed by entrepreneurs that have fallen by the wayside. The oldest professional club in the city is Brasília Futebol Clube, founded in June 1975. Playing in a kit that resembles Arsenal’s famous red and white, their home ground is the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, but it is simply too expensive for small clubs to host games there. Although they have won the state league (one of the weakest) eight times, they are not even in the Campeonato Brasilense’s top division.

Brasília played in Série A in 2000 when an expanded league (116 clubs) paid tribute to former FIFA President João Havelange. In 2014, they won the inaugural Copa Verde, a regional competition designed to promote football outside of the main hubs, gaining entry to the Copa Sudamericana.

Legião are another club that are supposed to play their games at the Estádio Nacional. They were founded in 2006. They have played in Série C, albeit very briefly. Real Brasília were formed in 1994 and play out at Vila Planalto. They are simply known as Real Football Club today. Teams like Gama and Brasilense have tried to make play at representing Brasília, but the distance from the city to the club is 30km and 20km respectively.

If there can be any comparison with the struggle to make Brasília a footballing stronghold, it is in the new towns of Britain, where migration of people has been accompanied by their clubs, in other words, in locations like Milton Keynes, Stevenage, Basildon and Harlow, establishing a local club has had to overcome numerous hurdles.

It’s unlikely this will change, the best hope for the unloved national stadium is a commercial development that will circle the structure. It might pay, although it’s not what was envisaged. But if a World Cup cannot inspire a city, what hope is there? The old saying is, “build it and they will come”. That hasn’t really happened, has it?


Photo: PA

Stadiums: Mid-century modern – hard to find

WHEN SCUNTHORPE United relocated to Glandford Park in 1988, they became the first club to move into a purpose-built stadium since Southend United took up residence at Roots Hall in 1955. This said a lot about the lack of redevelopment and willingness in the game to provide comfortable and modern facilities for the customer. Let’s be frank, many grounds in the 1980s was pitifully inadequate, unhygienic, unsafe and unwelcoming. If there was a material that epitomised a football stadium in the era between the 1960s and 1980s, it would either be barbed wire or rusty corrugated fencing.

Not all clubs were complacent, but the same grounds were always selected for big games year-after-year because there were few alternatives. Places like Villa Park, Old Trafford and Hillsborough would be awarded FA Cup semi-finals on a regular basis. But none of these venues were palaces, they just happened to have capacity and infrastructure. Even the old Wembley, with its overflowing toilets, poor catering and bad access, was way behind continental football homes.

When the World Cup came along in 1966, clubs did make some effort to provide some form of refurbishment, notably in the form of cantilever stands. A few years earlier, in 1958, Scunthorpe had made history by building the first cantilever grandstand at their Old Show Ground. This was innovative and represented a step forward from the conventional and traditional form of football architecture, in other words, the Archibald Leitch style of stadium. Sadly, the cantilever stand at Scunthorpe was demolished in 1988, but in some respects, it should have become a listed building.

The establishment has rarely given much respect to football arenas, rather like they used to dismiss the working man’s theatre, the Music Hall. For example, in Pevsner’s Buildings of England, only one ground, Arsenal’s Highbury, would make it into the book for London. 

Given the lack of construction other than necessary repair that took place across football, it is no surprise that what we now call “Mid-Century Modern” is hard to detect among stadiums. Some clubs had facades that were clearly influenced by the 1950s, such as Leeds United and Coventry City, but while Festival of Britain era buildings are now highly-coveted, there’s very little, if any, football architecture from that movement.

The nearest you might find is in the non-league game, especially those grounds that are multi-purpose. These sports arenas have been very unloved by fans, largely because of the running tracks around the football pitch and the distance of the spectator accommodation from the action. Yet these stadiums were often an important part of post-war new town development, providing facilities for the whole community. I particularly recall trips to Harlow, Walton & Hersham, and Croydon – all grounds that were clearly a case of function over form.

The image many people have of football grounds is of a set of largely wooden stands, skeletal floodlight pylons and an industrial landscape with chimneys perched close by. It’s a little like the way many folk see traditional English pubs, all subdued lighting, dark wood and horse-brass memorabilia. Our perception of what constitutes cosy, familiar and friendly has mostly been drawn from Victorian and Edwardian England!

But the classic example of mid-century modern can be found in Enfield, the Queen Elizabeth II stadium in Donkey Lane, which has a very distinctive main stand and turret-like structure and is now the home of Enfield Town FC.  Work started on this ground in 1939, so it has a strong art-deco influence, but the second world war interrupted its construction. Eventually, it was completed in 1953 and over the years, it became a training site for top-class athletes such as Seb Coe. After it fell into disrepair, Enfield Town moved into the ground in 2011 and a couple of years back, the QE2 hosted the CONIFA World Cup final. It is a ground to savour.

What’s quite remarkable is the amount of stadium building that has taken place in the very late 20th and early 21st century, it is a marked contrast to the productivity of the decades that came before. It was, of course, long overdue and it took stadiums disasters to accelerate projects to provide a better supporter experience. Even now, though, football venues are incredibly diverse, from the old school wooden home of the game to the nautical designs and now high-tech architectural statements. That’s what makes it so appealing, I guess.