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Soccer-Home at last as Flamengo return to Maracana

| SAO PAULO

SAO PAULO Oct 17 Flamengo will play Corinthians at the Maracana stadium next weekend -- a home game at their home ground in their home city.

After two decades of repeated closures and refurbishment such a seemingly simple scenario is something to celebrate for Flamengo's long-suffering fans.

"The anger is subsiding because we know that we will be back next week but it has been a hard year," said Fernando Lamego, a Flamengo supporter who has not seen his team all year. "In Rio de Janeiro, the fans are not happy."

The Maracana has been out of commission for much of the past 20 years, being refurbished for first the World Club Cup in 2000, then the 2007 Pan American games and finally this year's Rio Olympics.

It was closed for almost three years while being rebuilt for the 2014 World Cup and the gates were locked again after the closing ceremony of the 2016 Paralympics left a seven-metre by four-metre hole in the turf.

The best-supported club in Brazil have played all their home matches outside Rio this season, some of them 2,500 kms away in Natal -- equivalent to one of the Premier League's Manchester clubs playing their home games in Riga.

They have played 15 "home" league games, none of them at the Maracana or the Olympic stadium, which is owned by rivals Botafogo.

In addition to four in Natal, one took place in Sao Paulo, three were played a 90-minute flight away in the capital Brasilia, four were in Cariacica, a small city in neighbouring Espirito Santo state, and three were 130 kms along a motorway in Volta Redonda.

Lamego, who has a season ticket and hopes to go to Flamengo versus Corinthians on Sunday, has, like most fans, been forced to watch games on television instead.

"It's disgraceful, we should be able to play our big games at home which is the Maracana," he told Reuters.

"Even more ridiculous is the situation we had last week when Palmeiras played an away game at home because the other team sold them that right. The league have lost all their credibility."

That situation, when struggling America accepted an offer to move their home game to a city in which Palmeiras have a lot of support, prompted the league to ban teams playing their home matches outside their own state.

WHITE ELEPHANT

The ban will hurt some of stadiums built for the 2014 World Cup. At least four -- in Brasilia, Cuiaba, Manaus, and Natal -- have become the white elephants that everyone but the government predicted they would be and they pay teams such as Flamengo to play their homes games there.

Few of the World Cup stadiums make money. Brasilia's Mane Garrincha stadium loses 500,000 reais ($155,231) a month, according to the local tourism secretariat which runs the ground.

Officials at other arenas, including those in Natal, Belo Horizonte and Cuiaba, declined to answer questions on how much they were losing each month.

"All the stadiums, even those with potential, were managed by private companies that don't know the business," Amir Somoggi, a consultant on football commerce and columnist with the Lance! Sports newspaper, told Reuters. "Rio is a symbol of the disgrace."

Flamengo hope to get round the issue by building a compact ground for small games and taking control of the Maracana.

"There are two plans," Flamengo president Eduardo Bandeira de Mello told Reuters in an interview. "The long-term plan is to take over the running of the stadium and for that we need the state government to open a tender. Meanwhile, the short-term plan is to run the stadium on match days."

Administrative changes have been hastened by Brazil's "Car Wash" corruption scandal. Companies such as Odebrecht, which built and partly owns the Maracana, have had their assets seized after being accused of corrupt practices and are looking to cash in assets.

Flamengo hope they can take advantage and finally own a piece of the stadium they have long called home.

"It is clear that the model of granting concessions was not the best model," Bandeira de Mello said.

"It excluded the clubs from the management and nowhere in the world are the clubs excluded. The situation in Rio right now regarding stadiums is not good." ($1 = 3.2210 reais) (Editing by Clare Fallon)

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