x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Arena da Amazonia: A white elephant in the Amazon jungle

The Arena da Amazonia is a great stadium in a picturesque city, but over the long term it will not be worth the millions spent to build it, writes Gary Meenaghan in Manaus.

The Arena da Amazonia, hosting England and Italy tonight, cost Dh1.1 billion to build. But how often will it be used after the World Cup? Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA
The Arena da Amazonia, hosting England and Italy tonight, cost Dh1.1 billion to build. But how often will it be used after the World Cup? Jeon Heon-Kyun / EPA

The locale of Manaus may be proving a golden goose to headline writers with a liking for the Guns’n’Roses hit Welcome to the Jungle, but the traffic in this sprawling city in the heart of the Amazon is similar to any other metropolis: congested and frustrating.

The city of nearly two million is surrounded by 5.4 million square kilometres of rainforest yet suffers from chronic jams. Even so, the journey from the city’s grimy port to the gargantuan Arena da Amazonia is most effectively, efficiently and economically made by bus.

It was not supposed to be this way.

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The most popular route to Brazil’s northernmost World Cup stadium, which will host England’s opening match with Italy tonight, was supposed to be by monorail.

The city that once boasted one of South America’s first tram systems approved plans to construct a 20km train line that would shuttle spectators to the arena.

After accusations of irregular planning, it was cancelled. Ground was never broken.

Consequently, spectators will likely take the bus. It is slower and older than a monorail, but if treated like a scenic tour it can be rather pleasant. First, though, it is worth having a wander around town.

“Manaus is not this dangerous place that the newspapers would have you believe,” says Frida Debesa, who runs a local hostel and has lived in the city for almost 20 years.

“We have petty crime and it’s becoming more of a problem because of the World Cup, but we don’t have carjackings like in Rio and Sao Paulo. If someone steals your car here, where are they going to go? There are no roads out of Manaus,” she says.

So car drivers are safe but there is no shortage of gun incidents and theft.

Yet the city does not ooze dangerous vibes. Young people jog around the stagnant and smelly river that empties into the Amazon, while older residents walk dogs and sit under trees, protecting themselves from either the burning sun or the tropical downpours.

The area around the opera house is thriving with cafes and restaurants and is only a couple of blocks north of where the bus stop is, amid a marketplace of vendors selling corn on the cob, hot soup and fresh fruit. The bus snakes its way through pot-holed streets on the way to the city’s most grandiose structure.

At a cost of about US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion), the new the Arena da Amazonia stands out.

“This stadium has proved to the doubters that we may be all the way up here and only accessible by plane, but we can still build things and make things happen,” says Kelveny Buas, an engineer from Porto Alegre, who lives near Manaus. “It wasn’t 100 per cent ready on time, but compare it to some of the other stadiums – I’m impressed.”

As the rickety red-and-white bus trundles along Avenida Constantino Nery, it passes a green-and-white building – marked as a Syrian and Lebanese social club – then a big church, a bigger hospital and a bigger still shopping centre.

Everywhere you look is a tag or a squiggle, an artwork or a protest slogan. There are laundry services, cheap cafes, car repair shops and a Petrobras station.

When the bus pulls in at the shiny new stadium stop it is directly opposite a cavernous arena inspired by an indigenous straw basket, with yellow, red and orange seats representing Brazilian fruit.

The chairs are made of a special plastic that does not fade in the searing equatorial sunlight. (The Dubai Autodrome could take note.)

The majority of the stadium materials were shipped from Portugal, taking about 15 days to arrive at the Brazilian coast and then another four or five to weave their way up the Amazon, past the jungle city of Santarem and wooden boats that transport bananas and watermelons.

“I am happy the World Cup is in Manaus because it is good for the city,” says Buas, who works for Samsung Electronics. “We are isolated here, so people don’t often come, but for the World Cup, many people are arriving. It will be good for local business and the economy.

“For me though, it’s been no good – I want to see England but haven’t managed to get a ticket.”

Inside the stadium, it is clear the pitch is not great, the result again of Manaus’s uncomfortable climate.

Afternoon temperatures that creep over 30°C and humidity in excess of 75 per cent do not make for exemplary grass growing. Nor do they make for ideal playing conditions for players visiting from other parts of the world.

The grass is yellowing and has been relaid recently and the camps of England and Italy have made their criticisms known. Yesterday, FIFPro, the footballers’ organisation, said the pitch was not of World Cup calibre. It is not the only problem for this footballing theatre.

When Corinthians of Sao Paulo visited this year for a Copa do Brasil match, the stadium was filled to its 46,000 capacity, but when a regional final took place a week earlier, the match was played at a smaller stadium as only 6,000 fans were expected.

Amazonian football is minor league. The teams have fans, but the football is not of a high standard and, even if it were, the city’s conditions are not conducive to attending matches – much like in the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League.

Alan Pessoa, a self-employed Manaus resident, says his attitude to attending matches is fairly typical.

“Even if the quality of football was better, we have the problem with the heat,” he says. “You can watch a game in a bar or shopping mall with a drink and some picanha (Brazilian beef) and it will cost about R$60 (Dh98).

“Or, you can buy a ticket for R$20, drive to the game, deal with the traffic, pay R$20 to park your car, eat rubbish junk food and then sit in the stifling heat for two hours. It makes no sense.”

So a $300m stadium now sits in a remote city accessible only by plane or boat and without a football team that can regularly fill it – welcome to the jungle, one with a big white elephant.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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