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Maracana – The Serbian Caudron

The Red Star Stadium is remarkable in many respects. In some ways, it is even unique. Take the stadium’s name for a start, as it is rarely referred to by its official name. Instead, everyone knows it as the “Marakana”, a nickname that dates back to the 1960s. When it was opened, fans in Belgrade and the media were so proud of the new stadium that they spontaneously named it after the famous Maracana in Rio de Janeiro (see article on pages 48 and 49).
Back in the days when stadiums boasted terracing, the Marakana could hold up to 100,000 people — or even 10,000 more for major matches. The official record stands at 96,070 for a European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final clash between Red Star Belgrade and Ferencvaros (2-2) in April 1975, but such figures are now a thing of the past. For safety reasons, the capacity is currently 52,000, although even that figure is rarely reached these days. The Marakana is sold out once or maybe twice a year, usually when Red Star are in UEFA Champions League action or when Serbia use the stadium for World Cup or European Championship qualifiers, although Serbian pop stars have been known to play to full houses too. Otherwise, fans tend to be few and far between — Red Star generally attract crowds of less than 3,000 for their home matches.
But when the stadium is full, it certainly does its nickname justice. Although it has a running track, this sleeping giant of a stadium awakens from its slumber and transforms itself into a cauldron. Apart from the passionate and vociferous fans, it is the stadium’s impressive acoustics that make it so vibrant. The Marakana is set deep into the ground, rising only five metres above ground level, which certainly helps the stadium’s roar.
The Marakana has certainly enjoyed its fair share of highlights over the years, not least the 1973 European Cup final between Ajax and Juventus when the Dutch ran out 1-0 winners in front of a crowd of 91,564. Two matches in the 1976 European Championship were just as thrilling and exciting, however. West Germany’s 4-2 extra-time win over Yugoslavia in the semi-finals was followed by a final that was decided by a penalty shoot-out after the “West Germans’ 2-2 draw with Czechoslovakia. After the first eight penalty-takers all found the net, up stepped Uli Hoeness to blast the ball over the bar. And so the stage was set for Antonin Panenka to dink his legendary chip right down the middle of the goal. Nobody – least of all West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier – had expected such a calm, cheeky and some may say crazy penalty. Czechoslovakia had won the European Championship on the greatest night in their footballing history.
Fast forward fifteen years and Bayern Munich are in Belgrade for the second leg of a European Cup semi-final. As Bayern’s players train on the pitch, Hoeness – by now the general manager of the German giants — finds a vantage point high in the heavens of the north stand and stares pensively at the scene of his miss back in June 1976.
Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer later jokes that people in Belgrade are still looking for the ball that his friend once ballooned over the bar. Happily, there are hardly any negative stories about the Marakana, even though local derbies between Red Star and Partizan Belgrade often lead to crowd disturbances. Technical problems have also been few and far between, but on the rare occasions they have happened, they have come at the worst possible moment – such as in August 1999 when the second half of a EURO 2000 qualifier between Yugoslavia and Croatia (0-0) was delayed for 20 minutes due to a power failure.
The stadium does have its peculiarities, though. For example, the Marakana itself does not have any dressing rooms as they are located behind the north stand, having been moved from the west stand in the 1970s due to a lack of space in the stadium’s confines.
Players and match officials have a long, uphill walk through a 100-metre tunnel to get to the pitch, and that is not likely to change in the near future because construction issues and the continued lack of space means that the dressing rooms will not be returning to the stadium.
Fans should also be aware that there are very few car parking spaces around the stadium because Red Star have decided to use any free space to lay new training pitches for their youth teams.
The club’s 400m2 museum houses all of the trophies that Red Star have won over the years – 25 league titles, 22 domestic cups, the European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League) in 1991 and the Intercontinental Cup (now the FIFA Club World Cup) in the same year – but even that is bursting at the seams.
When it comes to food, however, the stadium sticks to the norm with ubiquitous fast food outlets and traditional Serbian specialities in countless homely restaurants dotted around the area. So there is, after all, something conventional at this rather unconventional stadium …