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World Cup arena awaits its second act in Brazil's Amazonas city of Manaus

After hosting four World Cup games, Manaus in the Amazon wonders whether the city's stadium, built for the tournament, will decay or thrive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 12:07am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 4:16am

The World Cup game between Honduras and Switzerland last week wasn't a particularly glamorous match-up, but it may have been historic nonetheless.

It was the fourth and final Fifa World Cup match played at Manaus' new Arena da Amazonia, leaving many there wondering if any event might ever again pack the venue, whose shape was inspired by a straw basket full of colourful tropical fruit.

Even before the World Cup matches were played, the Amazon city was singled out for its heat and humidity - and the improbability of building a US$303 million stadium in the middle of the rainforest.

There was England's coach, Roy Hodgson, saying Manaus was the World Cup city to avoid; as karma would have it, his team ended up playing and losing here, and there were also a few too many references by international soccer writers to the Guns 'N Roses song Welcome to the Jungle.

John Oliver, host of HBO's Last Week Tonight, also got into the act, questioning the arena's price tag. "Okay, that does seem like a waste of money. There's also no team in Manaus that can fill it afterwards, at which point it becomes the world's most expensive bird toilet," he said.

But jokes aside, the question now for the city of two million people is: was it worth it? Did Manaus get the visibility that it hoped for as a World Cup host city, and what will now become of its state-of-the-art, 44,500-capacity stadium?

The only legacy left is the arena itself and the new footpaths and asphalt surrounding it
ARY MACIEL

A new survey by QuestionPro, a software provider for online surveys, found that 50 per cent of Brazilians said their country should not have hosted the World Cup at all, and 65 per cent said the more than US$11 billion Brazil spent preparing for it should have gone to fund social programmes.

But in Manaus, some initial sceptics have come around after seeing the droves of visitors the World Cup pulled in. The local organising committee said it got "excellent" numbers on visitor satisfaction and that Manaus was considered one of "the most valued host cities".

"When the World Cup was first announced I was very resistant to it - the investment was too much," said Marilia Freire, a local bailiff who was in the crowd of 40,300 at the final game in her city. "But now, with the number of tourists I see, I think it has opened a very big window for the world to see this city. I think the Copa is going to keep bringing people here."

But those people won't likely be coming to watch soccer, said Freire, who had got into the spirit of the match by painting her face red and white - the colors of the Swiss flag.

"I think this arena might be used for musicals, shows, concerts, but not for soccer," she said. "For soccer, it will be almost unusable."

Unlike other parts of soccer-mad Brazil, Manaus does not have a strong soccer culture.

The game is played endlessly on open fields and in remote Indian villages in the Amazon, but the four best regional clubs - Princesa do Solimoes, Nacional, Fast Clube and Rio Negro - are considered third- or fourth-division in Brazil.

Games only attract a few thousand fans, and the calibre of play has little in common with the soccer played by first-division teams such as Sao Paulo's Corinthians or Rio de Janeiro's legendary Flamengo and Fluminense clubs.

But soccer diehards hope the World Cup experience will help elevate Amazonian soccer. They point out that the arena has already hosted Brazil Cup matches as a World Cup tune-up.

"Our soccer isn't well-known now, but it will get better," said cab driver Tarcisio Tida, 41.

Although Tida is convinced Arena da Amazonia will likely be underused, he said there was something inspirational about it.

It took about 2,100 workers nearly four years to build. The X-shaped metal modules that give the arena its distinctive shape were manufactured in Portugal and then shipped across the Atlantic and up the Amazon River to Manaus from March to October of last year.

The stadium is also packed with the latest technology, including 85 surveillance cameras that use facial recognition software, 420 floodlights that provide enough light for high-definition television broadcasts and a system that catches rainwater from the roof to water the field.

An Ernst & Young study is due in August on the best concession model for the stadium, which is under the management of the state of Amazonas' Olympic Village Foundation. And until that study is ready, local officials aren't saying much.

If only regional soccer games are played there, the facility would be more than overkill. But the state's Extraordinary Secretariat for World Cup Matters said there was "no risk of the arena becoming a white elephant" because it wouldn't be used solely for soccer, but also for concerts, fairs and other big events.

In Manaus, some are worried about the cost of maintaining Arena da Amazonia, said Ary Maciel, a translator.

The streets of the city have now returned to the locals, he said. "The only legacy left is the arena itself and the new footpaths and asphalt surrounding it," Maciel added.

But Erick Melo, a 31-year-old businessman who runs several shops in Manaus, is a sceptic turned believer. As he drank beer and waved a sign in support of the Swiss team, he said being a World Cup host just may work out for Manaus.

"Here we have this opportunity - it's a good opportunity for the government to make money and for the Amazon people to have a good experience," he said.

Among the winners during the tournament were 400 small businesses that received training and coaching on how they, too, could cash in on the World Cup. The Brazilian Service for the Support of Small and Micro Enterprises said the companies that participated in the programme rung up US$7.25 million in sales.

Among them was Mario Valle, who gave traditional British fish 'n' chips an Amazonian twist by using tambaqui, a tasty local fish, in his recipe. His creation earned a place among the much larger concessionaires who kept the fans fed at the arena and gave him the experience of participating in a mega-sporting event.

Melo, meanwhile, said he imagined world-class acts such as Paul McCartney or Metallica playing at the stadium.

He was also impressed with the organisation of the event, which helped Manaus shine. "I feel very happy because as a businessman I think everything should be perfect and I never imagined Manaus could be like this."

Manaus residents hope that World Cup fans who ventured out to see the rainforest and explored the city's historic streets liked what they saw and will visit again.

High in the stands during the Switzerland-Honduras match, a woman waved a sign that might best sum up Manaus' hopes.

"The Cup was here, the world has found us," it read. "Please keep coming."

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