Finding beauty in a strange place
MANAUS, Brazil -- Before Steven Gerrard took to this much-maligned pitch for England's training session on Friday evening, he wore the familiar crinkled look of lost travelers everywhere: Where the hell am I?
It's a look worn by just about every living thing in this sprawling frontier city, nearly 2 million people and however many toucans and monkeys sharing a tenuous existence in the depths of the Amazon. (The edges of local maps are illustrated with greenery and a collection of cartoon jungle creatures, a more tourist friendly version of HERE BE DRAGONS.) Now pale-faced aliens have come out of the skies to pay a visit to this singular place. Never mind Steven Gerrard. Manaus has become an entire city of the bewildered.
The confusion stands to reason: There is no rational reason for any of us to be here, let alone English and Italian footballers and their staggering, sunburned fans. Manaus exists because of the confluence of rivers and rubber and more recently some cryptic government tax shenanigans. The World Cup is here because -- well, nobody seems to know why, exactly. Somebody, somewhere, was compelled to make a series of decisions that led to $300 million, give or take, being spent to build a not-quite-finished stadium that will host four games and then presumably turn either into a prison -- not a joke -- or be left to rot. Suddenly, Nelspruit, South Africa, seems like a reasonable host city. At least there are roads to it.
Much of this stadium was shipped here from Portugal, across the ocean and into the gaping mouth of the Amazon. (Portugal's players will follow, playing the U.S. here on June 22.) If logic is removed from the equation, it's really quite impressive that the Arena de Amazonia stands at all. It gets humid enough here to buckle steel; the orange-and-yellow seats have been famously made from plastic resistant to the blistering sun.
In El Dorado Square in Manaus on Friday, the asphalt sparkled with the silver of bottle caps that had melted into it. During Brazil's Thursday evening opener against Croatia, the square had been packed with locals, lighting off fireworks and dancing under green and yellow streamers. In the boil of Friday afternoon, it was reserved mostly for a small collection of tourists in the vain hunt for the familiar. They sat together outside, under great plastic tarps torn and flapping in the breeze, and they watched the Netherlands annihilate Spain on TVs that were sometimes washed out by the sun.
They had flown here from Sao Paulo or Rio, having gawked out of their windows at the jungle and the great multi-hued rivers that meet here. They had driven from the airport through a city that looks impossible in every way, some combination of delusion and miracle, everything here harder to do than it is just about anywhere else. They had checked into hotels that, like the stadium, are unfinished, the sound of drills ringing through the thin walls. (The universal symbol of international sporting events now seems to be live wires hanging out of ceilings.) And then, from all over the world, they had come together finally in El Dorado Square.
There was something just a little beautiful about the scene. Not nearly beautiful enough to justify the money and time and effort spent to bring eight football teams here to play on painted dirt over the next dozen days, but a little beautiful nonetheless.
There were men and women in jerseys from England and Spain and Argentina and Brazil sitting together in plastic chairs that had been engineered to resist neither the heat nor the calamitous burden of foreigners, drinking from quart bottles of Brahma and devouring their plates of carne and batatas, ordered by picture off the menu, aided by waiters skilled at animal noises and pantomime. If only for a day or two they were all in the sun and this lunacy together, and they clung to their beer and their football, pausing only occasionally to shake their heads at each other, punctuating several languages worth of happy curses with a single common word: Manaus.