Manaus celebrates its World Cup games in the Amazon rain forest, even as some wonder why

The motorboat caroms over the black marble-topped water of the Rio Negro, reinforcing the truth that there are just two ways in and out of the Amazon: boat and plane. Highways don’t touch this part of earth, and with only trees, birds and sky in sight, it’s no wonder researchers believe there are at least a dozen tribes in this massive rain forest that have never had contact with the outside world.

The boat docks at Tumbira, a village of about 115 people in the state of Amazonas, where the women are already preparing the day’s feast, the men are attaching an antenna to a long tree branch to ensure perfect reception later and young boys kick a ball around, in anticipation of the afternoon soccer game.

There are no cars and very limited resources. But each of these communities that dot the river shores in the Amazon rain forest have three staples: a church, a school and a soccer field. The biggest difference between soccer here and, say, Sao Paulo? One bad kick could send the ball toward the gushing river.

In recent years, limited energy has slowly stretched across both sides of river. But just in case, Roberto Mendonça says, generators will be ready to go when the World Cup games start later in the day.

“We won’t miss one second,” promises Mendonça, who has lived his entire 40 years along the river here, about 40 miles west of Manaus, one of 12 sites for the 2014 World Cup matches and by far the most remote.

BRAZIL MAP: 2014 World Cup venues

Tournament organizers decided to stage four World Cup matches in the Amazon — including Sunday’s game between the United States and Portugal — both a unique proposition and a logistical headache. Even as Manaus and the surrounding communities have excitedly embraced the tournament, many view the matches here as a needless endeavor, an expensive novelty that has come to symbolize the expense and waste associated with staging the month-long event. Local residents fear the $300 million Arena Amazonia stadium that should be part of the tournament’s legacy could ultimately become just another of Manaus’s long list of problems.

“The only thing that has really changed is the stadium,” Manaus resident Paulo Freitas said. “It used to be small. Now it’s big.”

Freitas was hawking boat tours near the marketplace on a recent afternoon and reported that business has been lighter than expected during the tournament’s early days. Not far away, Ednilson da Silva sat on a park bench in Heliodoro Balbi Plaza and listed the promises associated with being one of the tournament’s host cities: new streets, new airport, new convention center and a $775 million monorail, among them.

So much for the monorail

While there have been some cosmetic improvements around town, the airport isn’t complete, the paint is still drying on the convention center and plans for the monorail were long ago abandoned. It’s not uncommon to see 50 people waiting at a bus stop, all jostling for position in the shade of a tree, and residents say the jungle city lags behind Brazil’s metropolises in technology and infrastructure.

“We have this new stadium and it’s beautiful,” da Silva said. “But after three or four games, it’ll be useless. People will still need schools, still need hospitals.”

The complaints are similar to those voiced in other host cities, where citizens have watched the government pour billions of dollars into hosting 64 soccer matches. Despite the best efforts of protesters opposed to the spending, people throughout Brazil accepted they couldn’t stop the tournament. Now that it’s underway, many in Manaus realize it’s a chance to showcase their unique city — its 117-year-old opera house, its bouncy boi bumba and forro music, and the grilled jaraqui and tambaqui fishes, pulled right out of the Amazon waters.

“The Cup is here, the money is spent,” da Silva said. “We should use it for good. Here, people think we only have forest and monkeys and tribes. No, there’s a lot of things to do.”

Manaus is hot, humid and friendly. Locals say they enjoy two seasons: a rainy summer and a dry summer. Without the aid of a map, a tourist standing in the historic center would have no idea that beyond city limits, the rain forest stretches in all directions. From inside, it looks and feels like many other large cities.

While Manaus hosts many local festivals, because of its isolated location it doesn’t attract big events. Not surprisingly, enthusiasm over the Cup is more pronounced here than in many of the other host cities. Residents along Third Street in the Alvorada neighborhood painted a colorful mural on more than a mile of asphalt, closing the roadway to cars during the tournament. Fifteen feet in the air hangs a blanket of streamers, carefully arranged into elaborate designs and patterns. Raimundo Silva, 73, has decorated one corner of his front room with a mountain of empty beer cans, collected from the daily World Cup parties held by him and his neighbors.

“I don’t know if bigger cities have these kind of relationships,” he said, waving a hand over his street.

Not far away, Joseta Vares, 57, showed up for another day of work at Ponta Negra, the sandy beach on the shores of the river. He sat under a green and yellow umbrella with a Brazilian soccer shirt pulled over his sun-charred skin.

“Every day here is a day of having fun,” he said, tapping an index finger on the cooler in front of him.

Vares comes here seven days a week, selling beer and drinking beer — not always in that order. He has been enjoying the World Cup and all the accoutrements, from the spruced up city streets to the increased police presence, but calls the stadium a “white elephant.”

“Will all this stay after the Cup?” he asked. “When the tourists go away, what will it be like then?”

A love for the game

They’ll be left with memories of four matches and a $300 million facility with no tenant. The Amazon doesn’t have a top-level soccer team that warrants a 40,000-seat stadium. The city’s mayor has floated the names of high-profile acts such as Elton John and Paul McCartney, plus the possibility of hosting NBA games or UFC fights. But right now nothing is scheduled for the space beyond the four soccer games.

It’s a lot of money and effort for what will amount to about six hours of soccer action. Materials for the stadium crossed the Atlantic from Portugal and were then shipped up the Amazon River. Construction took place in sweltering heat and under relentless rain. Deadlines were missed and problems arose. Three people were killed during construction.

Ground was broken on the project in 2010. Four years later, one day before England and Italy opened World Cup play here last week, workers were still pouring asphalt in the parking lot, laying pavement for sidewalks and arranging sod around the stadium. When the numbers are finally tallied, the stadium will likely come in at least $75 million over budget.

Media reports have circulated outside of Manaus suggesting the stadium might someday become a prison, but local residents say they’ve heard nothing that gives credence to the rumors. Instead they’ll wait and see.

The stadium and the tournament was meant for all of northern Brazil and the state of Amazonas. But those along the river say they’re just grateful to watch matches on television. The people in Tumbira have little reason to leave their shore. They fish together, farm together, build together, eat together.

“Here, from the youngest kid to the oldest person, everybody knows and respects each other,” Mendonça said. “In big cities, it is not that way.”

The river-side villages have been running a World Cup-like tournament of their own this month. Every community has its own soccer team and each weekend, the whole village boards boats and travels for much-anticipated matches in places such as Tumbira, Saraca or Santo Antonio.

They don’t need big stadiums. Just a field, a ball, two goals — and someone to guard against the ball falling into the river.

Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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