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Soccer-No regrets for Zico over new, smaller Maracana

Reuters

By William Schomberg

RIO DE JANEIRO, June 16 (Reuters) - Zico scored a record-breaking 333 goals at the Maracana, but he's not misty-eyed for the old, bigger version of the stadium in which crowds of more than 100,000 used to see him play in a Flamengo shirt.

Speaking on the 64th anniversary of the opening of Rio de Janeiro's famous arena, the former Brazil striker dismissed criticism that the newly refurbished Maracana, with a reduced capacity of 78,000, lacks the scale of the past.

"I am not a nostalgic type," said Zico, a statue of whom stands inside the stadium. "I would like to see the Maracana always full. But you have to have teams with the right kind of players to fill the Maracana."

Dwindling crowds in recent years, which have seen title-deciding matches attended by as few as 15,000 people, showed the days of staggeringly large attendances were over, he said.

Violence in and around stadiums, late kick off times, the high cost of entry and extensive live TV coverage have also kept fans away from grounds in recent years.

Zico put the blame on the exodus of Brazil's most famous footballers to clubs in Europe, as well as competing demands on people's leisure time.

"In recent years, all the big players are abroad and it's the big players who bring the big crowds," he said. "I think the Maracana, as it is now, is what football needs."

The stadium has been refurbished three times in the last 15 years, at huge cost and much to the ire of some fans, who say it has lost its magical aura.

Zico first went there as a child to witness legendary Brazil striker Garrincha score a hat-trick for club side Botafogo that sunk his beloved Flamengo in a Rio state championship decider in 1962.

A year later, he was back to see Flamengo win in another title clincher against local rivals Fluminense, in front of 177,000 fans. "It's one of the best memories I have of my entire life," he said.

The first match played at the Maracana, on June 16, 1950, was an exhibition game featuring teams representing Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Eight days later, the first match of the 1950 World Cup was held there and three weeks after that it was the scene of the most traumatic defeat in Brazilian soccer history when the host nation was beaten to the title of world champions by Uruguay in front of nearly 200,000 people.

It is a memory that this year's team is desperate to wipe out by winning the final in the Maracana on July 13. (Writing by William Schomberg; editing by Andrew Downie)

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