Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
Despite being a city of two million people, Manaus is the definition of a backwater. Located at on the confluence of the Negro and Solimoes rivers, you can only reach the capital of the state of Amazonas within Brazil via boat or airplane. I really didn't know what to expect. In some ways I imagined a crazy border town with a colonial heart. But as I flew in and got a grand view of the city, including the controversial Arena de Amazonia, Manuas revealed itself as a mundane suburban sprawl punctuated by pockets of forest and punctured by groups of highrises. It was a sleepy affair with far-flung neighborhoods, but still sported its colonial roots with the grand dame Amazonas Opera House overlooking a historic city square which drew many fans for the World Cup festivities.
Manaus first saw its heyday with the rubber boom at the end of the nineteenth century. Extravagant expenditures were made by local barons to turn the city into a cultured and sophisticated destination. But once seeds of the rubber tree were smuggled out, and the region lost its monopoly, the party was quickly over. It wasn't until the declaration of Manaus as a free trade zone in the 1960s that it began its economic recovery. Now its home to many manufacturers, military camps, and eco-tourist outfits. The continued development of this outlier metropolis still seems absurd to many, though, and the construction of the Arena de Amazonia is a prime example of the why so many Brazilians are upset with the gross expenditures of the World Cup by the federal government.
The Arena de Amazonia seats up to 46,000 fans and came with a price tag of $300 million. And after hosting four games for the World Cup, it's unlikely to see much future use. The stadium itself is quite spectacular, but the local soccer team rarely draws crowds of over a thousand people. The municipal government claims it will host other events that can cover the maintenance costs of the stadium, but it seems doubtful, and the environment of the region will set upon the structure immediately. It's hot, very humid, and gets large doses of equatorial sunlight. Improvident spending for hosting such a spectacle hasn't been matched since the opening of the opera house during the rubber boom. The stadium will do little for the surrounding communities after the World Cup is over.
The controversy of the entire enterprise was further compounded by comments from the English manager Roy Hodgson, who stated that it was not ideal to host soccer games in such unforgiving climes. Rhetorical jabs were exchanged between the mayor of Manaus and representatives of the English Football Association. Then, as fate would have it, England drew a matchup against Italy at the Arena de Amazonia for its first game. It was going to be a rumble in the jungle, and I flew in the morning of the match to check in on the proceedings.
The notoriously rabid supporters of the English team started showing up at the stadium early in order to imbibe great quantities of beer and take part in spontaneous singing bouts. They had traveled a long way to see their team take on their perennial rivals, Italy. Expectations were running high even though most English fans have dealt with decades of disappointment during previous World Cups. Their hopes actually seemed rather well-founded at the opening of the match, but the heat and humidity eventually took their toll on the lads. They just couldn't finish, and the Italian defense stood its ground to eke out a 2-1 victory. The disappointment in the English fan section was palpable. I have never seen such a large mass of sweaty, displeased, pasty faces in my life.
The English loss didn't stop the after party, though. Thousands of people gathered in the historic city center to drink beers and watch the Japan matchup against the Ivory Coast on large screens placed outside the Amazonas Opera House. The old met the new. It was a convivial atmosphere with a samba band playing outside a bar. Manaus actually proved to be one the most welcoming places I have visited in Brazil. The locals were open and inquisitive. Although they didn't think highly of the Arena de Amazonia, they were happy to host and felt they were getting some needed international recognition. I guess any publicity is good publicity, but the overall mood of the country still hangs in the balance of the Brazilian national team. I still have nine more cities to go. Off to Natal this morning to catch the opening match of the United States against Ghana.