SAO PAULO (AP) — The Maracana reopened after nearly three years of renovation on Saturday, with construction workers getting the first glimpse of the iconic Rio de Janeiro stadium which will host the 2014 World Cup final and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics.
The new stadium's first match was an exhibition between Friends of Ronaldo and Friends of Bebeto, former Brazil teammates.
"It looks amazing," said former Brazil star striker Ronaldo. "I'm happy to see the stadium ready again. The Maracana is a symbol of this country."
The workers who helped renovate the famed venue and their families were invited to witness the first test event at the new Maracana, which will be home to three Confederations Cup matches in June, including the final.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other guests were among the nearly 30,000 people attending the inauguration, which came after a series of delays, criticisms and protests.
A few hundred people took the opportunity to hold a peaceful protest against the stadium's privatization plan, saying it will give the government much less money than it invested in the venue and will lead to the demolitions of an indigenous museum, a public school and some athletics facilities in the area. On Friday, riot police removed a small group of indigenous people at the abandoned museum.
Maracana was initially expected to be completed last December, but the need to change the venue's roof forced the deadline to be extended into 2013. Rio organizers also missed an April 15 deadline set for all Confederations Cup stadiums.
The nearly $500 million spent to renovate the venue also attracted criticism, especially after the stadium had already gone through a significant face-lift before the 2007 Pan American Games. It had also been upgraded before FIFA's inaugural Club World Cup in 2000.
Each of the nearly 5,000 workers received tickets for themselves and their families, and before the match local media reported that some of the workers were selling the tickets for about $50.
In an unofficial opening ceremony, local artists sang popular songs and the ceremonial kickoff was done by of one of the stadium workers.
"I was moved," welder Antonio Pereira said after rolling the ball to Ronaldo. "It's like being able to enter in the house that you built yourself."
Ronaldo, a member of the local World Cup organizing committee, had a message to workers at halftime.
"Thank you very much, you were heroes," he said through the stadium's sound system.
Other former players were thrilled with the new Maracana.
"I had goose-bumps when I arrived today," said former Brazil coach and player Mario Zagallo.
Bebeto added: "I've played at Wembley, Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabeu and other top stadiums, but this is the greatest venue in football, it's very special."
Once the largest stadium in the world, the Maracana is where Pele scored his 1,000th career goal in 1969, and where nearly 200,000 people watched the 1950 World Cup final, when Brazil was upset by Uruguay in what became known as the Maracanazo. It was the largest crowd ever known to have watched a football match.
Former Fluminense striker Washington scored the first goal at the new stadium with a header in the 16th minute. Ronaldo also scored. The former three-time FIFA world player of the year had never scored at the stadium as a professional.
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