World Cup Diary:
Manaus as a World Cup metaphor
SAO PAULO -- The airport was a buzzing hub of excitement as football fans from around the world briefly convened before dispersing throughout Brazil.
The Costa Ricans and Uruguayans were in playful spirits, sharing jokes before their meeting on Saturday evening while an exhausted family of Mexicans shuffled through the departure hall in limp sombreros. An optimistic Englishman triumphantly raised his replica trophy to a chorus of cheers as journalists and photographers exchanged panicked glances about meticulously planned itineraries.
In the middle of the din sat Tony Pulis, serenity personified. "It's my first time in South America," the Crystal Palace manager said as I snatched a quick word. "And what a wonderful place to be. I can't wait for it to start."
As the conversation turned to Bahian culture and cuisine, the PA system announced the next set of departures. Now armed with a recommendation to try the local fish stew, moqueca, Pulis was destined for Salvador and the mouthwatering replay of the 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands -- a match the Welshman fondly remembers for having "a bit of niggle." The Costa Ricans and Uruguayans boarded the plane to Fortaleza; the mother of the Mexican posse shook her husband awake as the gate opened for Natal. I followed the Englishman -- World Cup still aloft -- and the party of explorers bound for the Amazon.
It is impossible to travel to Manaus and not be gripped by a sense of adventure. One thousand miles inland from the Atlantic ocean and surrounded by dense rainforest, undiscovered species and uncontacted tribes, this is where England's World Cup begins for real on Saturday. The bird's-eye view on the four-hour flight from Sao Paulo is stunning, a blanket of white cloud scattering to reveal a sea of lush green vegetation beneath, all of it dissected by snaking blue rivers.
The only other way to arrive here is via a five-day boat trip. This isn't the Brazil advertised in the glossy postcards of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, this is the outback.
The young Paulista (a nickname for residents of Sao Paulo) sitting next to me on the plane suggested that traveling to Manaus is like journeying to another country. A similar flight duration from England could take you to another continent. "I didn't see much of the city," said Clayton, recalling his only previous visit to this improbable metropolis. "But I can tell you it's very hot and it rains a lot."
Heavy showers shouldn't perturb England when they face Italy but the humidity will prove a suffocating issue for both teams. The beads of sweat trickling through Andrea Pirlo's flowing locks should make for a fine photo opportunity, whereas the bright pink face of Roy Hodgson is likely to adorn the back pages if England suffer a disappointing result. "We have to wait to see what Manaus brings," said the manager on Tuesday. "Yesterday [in Rio] it was hot and sunny, today is cool, so we don't know what Manaus will be like."
It is a shame that England are only here for a flying visit, landing late Thursday afternoon and hastily returning to their base on the coast immediately after the Group D encounter. The locals are enormously excited at Manaus' inclusion in the tournament and proud to have a role in the biggest sporting event on the calendar. Playing in such a setting is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and should not be viewed as an inconvenience -- an opinion previously expressed by Hodgson but one he denies following criticism from the city's mayor.
Of course, there are questions regarding the feasibility of Manaus' involvement. Home to the rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century, it was once known as the Paris of the Tropics and famed for the extravagance of its richest inhabitants, a history alluded to in Werner Herzog's epic film "Fitzcarraldo." The age of opulence faded as the rubber trade moved to Asia, but the building of the Arena da Amazônia serves as a reminder of the era. At a reported cost of USD $319 million -- and three human lives during its construction -- it is an extortionate price to pay for four matches.
With the largest local club, Nacional, playing in the fourth tier of the Brazilian league, protesters' claims that the stadium is a white elephant are justified. But a city of some two million residents should be able to find use for a 40,000-seat, multipurpose venue. That population figure has grown from just 300,000 in 1970, owing to government tax breaks on Manaus-based businesses in order to improve employment opportunities and deter deforestation. The "Monaco of the Tropics" is now a more apt moniker.
The lack of a significant footballing power in the area should also not be confused with an absence of passion for the game, which ripples through the decorated streets and into the matchbox bars with their crackling TV sets broadcasting the build-up to Brazil vs. Croatia. In Alex Bellos' excellent book "Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life," the author describes an annual event in the region called the Peladão, or "Big Kickabout," which boasts about 13,000 players. A chaotic and fiercely contested competition, it encapsulates the wildness of its surroundings.
It also captures the very essence of what football means to the people of Manaus and the country as a whole. "The tournament is an escape valve. It suffocates social disorder," organiser Arnaldo Santos told Bellos. "What sustains this country is the fact that it has football. Football is the shout that comes from the depths of those who hardly live, of people who aren't sure where their next meal will come from. The jubilation of scoring a goal renews the soul."
Bizarrely, the Big Kickabout is also part beauty pageant, perhaps serving as a fitting metaphor for what Brazil is about to experience. It will be prodded and probed, castigated and celebrated over the next month, but if the warm welcome of Manaus is anything to go by, we are about to witness a World Cup to remember.