How South American football is helping battle the coronavirus
The South American confederation has found a new reason to celebrate the best goal scored the last time the World Cup was staged on the continent. One of the great moments of Brazil 2014 was the strike by Colombia's James Rodriguez against Uruguay, taking the ball down on his chest and unleashing a magnificent volley hit on the swivel that clipped the underside of the crossbar on its unstoppable path into the goal.
Rodriguez received the ball between the lines of the opposing team -- and it has been calculated that his distance from Uruguay centre-back Diego Godin was two metres. As CONMEBOL put it, "two metres can change history." Two metres, of course, is now being advanced as the safe distance between people to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
If the great goal is now being pressed into service in the battle against COVID-19, so is the stadium in which it happened. The crossbar that was clipped, the pitch where Rodriguez stood, the stands where the goal was celebrated -- all belonged to Rio's word famous Maracana Stadium, which over the next few days will be turned into a field hospital, increasing the number of beds available in Brazil in an attempt to ease the strain on a health system that could soon enter into collapse.
This is not uncommon. Clubs all around South America are placing their facilities at the disposition of the authorities. In Brazil, it is the giant city of Sao Paulo that is taking the brunt of coronavirus casualties. The municipal Pacaembu Stadium near the centre of town has undergone a similar transformation. Built in 1940, and until recently the home of Corinthians, Pacaembu is full of history.
The Maracana has more, though, despite being 10 years younger. It has played host to two World Cup finals. It was the favourite stage of the greats: Pele loved playing there, Garrincha and Zico gave weekly masterclasses, and the stadium has enjoyed a magical few months, by far the best since it was comprehensively (and controversially and expensively) rebuilt for the 2014 World Cup.
In July, the Brazil team returned to the stadium for the first time in six years to win the final of the Copa America -- a century on from their first triumph. Then, after the pause for the Copa, club football returned with local giants Flamengo under the command of Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus. With a high defensive line and a swashbuckling approach, Jesus brought the attacking approach of contemporary European club football across the Atlantic -- and the locals loved it. It was not just the fact that Flamengo swept all before them, winning the Brazilian and continental titles. It was the way they did it, attacking from first to last, combining at pace, meshing individual and collective achievement.
The atmosphere in the stands was pure party. It is fair to say that many people rediscovered their love for the game of football in the Maracana during the second half of 2019.
Now it looks like it will become a place where people will fight for their lives.
There is a cruel irony here. In order to host the 2014 World Cup, Brazil spent too much and too unwisely, especially on stadiums. On the Local Organising Committee was the former great striker Ronaldo, who defended the need to invest in stadiums with the argument, "You don't make a World Cup with hospitals."
Now, that venue of the 2016 World Cup final is becoming an emergency hospital.