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Jun 9, 2014

Tale of Two Cities -- And Two World Cups

The sights and sounds of Manaus.

A drizzly Sunday night in downtown Manaus, or indeed any other big Brazilian city, is as good a place as any to take a reading on the social problems that scar the country's society. Away from the faded opulence of the Teatro Amazonas and the bohemian airs of the surrounding Praca Sao Sebastiao, the streets grow emptier and the atmosphere edgier. While the city's upper-middle classes are tucked up in their plush apartment buildings or roaming the expensive shopping malls, the homeless beg for change or scraps at the espetinho (small skewer) stands on Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro.

Amid the shadows, Caldeira Bar on Rua Jose Clemente is a welcome oasis of noise and light. The bar has history -- it was founded in 1963 and the walls are plastered with photos of the great Brazilian poet and songwriter Vinicius de Moraes. On this night, lively samba booms out over the heads of the drinkers. The flags of the eight countries that will play in Manaus during the World Cup hang from the front of the building, fluttering limply in the rain.

In a few days' time, fans from England and the U.S., as well as Honduras, Portugal, Cameroon, Croatia, Italy and Switzerland, will gather here before and after games. But for now, what is the mood in Manaus ahead of the World Cup? Not entirely good, it seems.

"Brazil doesn't have the infrastructure to host the World Cup," says Bianca Raposo, a student drinking at the bar.

Her friend Matheus Carneiro agrees: "If we could go back in time, I wouldn't vote for Brazil to host the World Cup. The stadium won't be used after the tournament and the cost is ridiculous. Then the government tells us how they're improving roads and public squares around the city. But these are things that they should be doing anyway."

Further probing reveals the essential dichotomy at the heart of Brazil's relationship with the World Cup, where intense frustration at the almost institutionalised sloth and incompetence of the country's political classes does battle with inherent pride at the best the country has to offer, such as the tremendous friendliness of the people.

What will tourists find when they come to Manaus? "They'll get a great welcome. A lot of people in Manaus are from the interior of the state, and it retains that small-town feel in a lot of ways," says Matheus, as Beatriz nods in agreement.

Manaus hasn't had much exposure before the World Cup came into view.

In a city like Manaus, regional differences also come into play. The Brazilian economy and media are dominated by the Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo axis in the southeast part of the country, and people in Manaus feel they are often overlooked by cariocas and paulistas. This was an essential part of the Brazilian government's perhaps dubious argument that the World Cup should be expanded to 12 host cities, so that more of the country could be included in the event.

"People in Rio and Sao Paulo know nothing about Manaus. They think it's just jungle. But it's a big city. The World Cup will improve our image," says Beatriz.

A gloomy mood hangs over another table. "There should be criteria for countries that want to host the World Cup, like connected transport networks. Brazil wouldn't pass," says Daniel Amorim, a journalist. 

"They've given up on almost all the infrastructure works, like the monorail from the airport," complains Pablo Araujo, a musician.

Yet a few metres away the mood is more cheerful. Alan Pessoa is self-employed and a little older than the drinkers at the other tables, with a cheerful air of the growing prosperity of the hardworking Brazilian lower-middle class. "There are lots of things people don't know about Manaus. We were the first Brazilian city to have electric street lighting, for example. Of course, the World Cup will bring benefits. And people here love football, just like every Brazilian."

But Alan is not naïve about the reality of Brazil's botched World Cup preparations. "Of course the World Cup will go ahead, and it will probably be a success," he says. "But people are so angry because they know that the government's line -- that the delayed infrastructure works will still be finished after the World Cup -- means that they'll never be finished."

The problem the Brazilian government (and by proxy, FIFA) faces is that while the negative aspects of the World Cup -- delays, overspending, the deaths of construction workers, the forced removal of people from their homes, political protests, and the white elephant question surrounding stadiums in Manaus, Cuiaba and Brasilia -- are both highly visible and easily proved, the claimed benefits of the event are more nebulous.

Official government figures suggest that 600,000 foreign tourists will visit Brazil during the World Cup, and that 710,000 jobs will be created by the event, but it will take more than estimates to convince a population skeptical of the words of politicians.

And even those politicians, it seems, might be losing a little faith. In a recent interview with O Globo website while at a FIFA event in Switzerland, Manaus Mayor Arthur Virgilio said that he had suggested to the Amazonas state governor Jose Melo that the Arena Amazonia be sold to the private sector after the World Cup. "Keeping it would be a waste," Virgilio said. "There's not much football in Amazonas ... if we sell it, we can try and turn this bitter lemon into lemonade."

The Arena Amazonia will hopefully not become a white elephant after the tournament.

In the same interview, Virgilio said that he would meet with the hotel and tourism sector to try to avoid what he described as "the Noah's Ark syndrome," in which business owners will adopt a get-rich-quick mentality, charging exploitative prices and damaging the city's potential for long-term tourist growth.

In the end, Manaus and other cities like it -- and even Brazil itself -- face the same contradictions. Their problems are not the problems of the World Cup, but of decades of a lack of investment in infrastructure, housing and other public services.

The World Cup will probably not harm the city much (though the money spent on the Arena Amazonia could clearly have been better invested elsewhere), but neither will it solve its problems. And while those problems remain, even with the tournament just days away, the debate over the wisdom of Brazil's hosting of the World Cup will not go away.