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Brazil's Maracana Stadium Mark's 70th Anniversary, But COVID-19 Is Spoiling The Party


For Brazilians, the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro is a national symbol. But it's increasingly becoming a political flashpoint during the pandemic, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's 1950. A huge crowd has gathered inside the recently opened Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to see this.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay. Among the excited fans is Joao Maximo, then aged 15.


JOAO MAXIMO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The Brazilians were convinced they'd win the trophy, says Maximo, until this happened.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Maximo remembers after that goal, the fans fell completely silent. Uruguay went on to win 2-1. Maximo became a successful sports writer, and the Maracana became an arena for many of Brazil's great events, including the opening of the 2016 Olympics and a 1980 performance by Frank Sinatra in front of 175,000 people.


FRANK SINATRA: I want you to know one thing. This is the greatest moment I have ever experienced in my life as a professional singer.

(Singing) It's up to you, New York, New York.

REEVES: The stadium has now fallen silent again, this time because of the pandemic. The authorities have built a field hospital for COVID-19 victims inside the grounds, just outside the stadium gates. That hospital is keeping the Maracana in the headlines, but for the wrong reasons, says Juliana Dal Piva, who covers Rio for O Globo newspaper.

JULIANA DAL PIVA: It's really sad because the Maracana's hospital is under investigation now because of the corruption and pandemic.

REEVES: Police suspect government officials in Rio have pocketed money meant for that hospital and others. Dal Piva says the scandal's playing into the hands of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro.

DAL PIVA: I think that this very complicated situation in Rio helped Bolsonaro's narrative.

REEVES: Bolsonaro's narrative is that the numbers of COVID-19 deaths and infections in Brazil are exaggerated. He believes they're inflated by state and municipal officials trying to scam federal funds. Bolsonaro has urged his followers to play detective.


PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He's told them to go inside public hospitals and film to show if intensive care beds are really occupied. Doctors are horrified.

ALEXANDRE TELLES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This spreads the virus, frightens frontline staff and violates patient privacy," explains Alexandre Telles, president of Rio's doctors union. Telles says victim numbers are not exaggerated. Brazil hasn't done much testing. The true numbers are likely far higher, he says. Maracana's hospital has not yet been invaded by Bolsonaro supporters. Staff are on their guard, though. Several others have.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Last week, the Maracana held its first soccer match since the pandemic began. But without fans...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...It sounded eerily quiet on the radio. Seeing their epic stadium dragged into the pandemic isn't easy for Brazilians.

MAXIMO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This feels like being in a war," says sports writer Joao Maximo, who's now 85. Rio's mayor says fans can return to the Maracana on July the 10, though with restricted numbers. No one can wait for this pandemic to end and for the Maracana to find its voice again.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.