Heat is on as England land in Manaus
MANAUS, Brazil -- England's players might have been forgiven for thinking of Manaus as a ghost town when their luxury coach made its way through Amazonas' capital. All the shops had been closed down; even the drive-through McDonald's was not open for business. At their hotel, only a small crowd greeted them.
There was good reason for the standstill. The England party's plane landed just as the city's population had hunkered down in front of their TV sets as the Brazilian national team began its campaign in Sao Paulo with that rather unconvincing victory against Croatia. Watching the match together, England's squad heard fireworks ringing out in daylight to signify each Brazil goal, with an especially loud blast coming once Neymar had scored his disputed penalty to make it 2-1.
Once the game was over, the city returned to its understated normality, and town centre bars began slowly to fill with the first wave of England fans arriving from the transport hubs of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
Saturday concludes a month of notable English harmony, with the most serious injury occurring to assistant coach Ray Lewington, on crutches thanks to wrenching his knee. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's and Danny Welbeck's scares have been as frightening as it has got.
"I don't think it could have gone much better, to be honest," Leighton Baines said on Thursday evening. "Spending a few weeks together has enabled us to get that kind of club feel to the international setup."
Baines was repeating a mantra heard throughout the past month. The only notes of disquiet have come in Roy Hodgson's attempts to head off headlines and dampen down expectation in his increasingly terse dealings with a press pack who have been unable to uncover too much in the way of big stories.
The burning question of the bone-dry, fallow Manaus pitch is believed to have been the reason for a slight delay in arrival, though it has always been apparent that the England plan has been to spend as little time in the northern outpost as possible before returning to the more manageable climes of Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte.
Visitors to the Arena da Amazonia on Thursday noted that work was far from being completed around the stadium, with frantic renovations taking place as the English media descended for their first look.
Not that England's players are looking to get their excuses in early. "It's a football pitch," goalkeeper Joe Hart had deflected at the Urca training base in Rio. "We are playing in the middle of the jungle. It's a different experience for all of us."
Hart's acceptance of come-what-may was a refreshing switch from the habitual obsessions of England travelling parties. It is to be hoped that, whatever occurs in the tournament, matters do not descend to the pathetic levels reached as all began to tear apart in 2010. Any Englishman should shift uncomfortably in their seat when considering the fallout from Fabio Capello's campaign. Did we really find ourselves obsessing over whether John Terry should be allowed a beer with his evening meal?
Lessons appear to have been learned from that fateful trip, and Terry, despite his excellence for Chelsea, is now part of the national team's past.
And there has also been a sense of greater liberation than was allowed at the Bafokeng Sports Campus, as run by Commandant Capello. Krakow, at Euro 2012, a location chosen by Capello before Hodgson stepped in, was perhaps too far the other way, but Rio's state of controlled security seems to have provided a happy medium. Even Wayne Rooney seemed chipper when carrying out his media duties this week.
"This one I'm going to enjoy, regardless of what happens," he said. "I'm going to make sure I take positive memories from it. Because there's no point in doing it if you're not enjoying it."
The image of Rooney snarling at TV cameras after England's X-rated stalemate with Algeria in 2010 is indelible, but at 28, there is a definite sense of appreciation that this may be his final World Cup. "I feel great, better than I have for years. I'm ready for this tournament," he said, while also nodding his appreciation towards the group of younger players who will be playing alongside him in Brazil, and may soon supplant him.
"We have covered every base, but that's no different to previous tournaments," Hart suggested. "I don't think England have ever come in unprepared for anything."
Hart was an unused reserve in South Africa, but was made aware that all positives can fade in the blink of an eye, as happened to fellow goalkeeper Rob Green against USA in Rustenberg. "We are on a different continent, different tournament, different players, different staff, but we went into the last one confident," he said.
The bonhomie can all too easily be forgotten, and England's Brazilian campaign will only be recalled for the friendship between players if they are successful. Manaus means business. Saturday is when the fun stops. Four weeks of transit, training and talk are forgotten once the whistle is blown.