When the heart of the Amazon was among the richest places on Earth, local rubber barons flaunted their incredible wealth by building a spectacular opera house in Manaus using British steel, French glass and Italian marble.
At great expense, they shipped construction materials across the Atlantic and down the Rio Negro, then filled their new venue in the forest with the world’s leading musicians and conductors.
Even by the standards of the late 19th century Belle Epoque, some considered this an extravagant folly, but those behind the scheme saw themselves as pushing back the boundaries of their civilization.
More than a century later, a similar spectacle is being prepared, but this time the sultry capital of Amazonas will not be staging La Gioconda — it will be hosting the FIFA World Cup.
“History has turned full circle for Manaus,” said Eric Gamboa, of the local organizing committee. “In our last golden age, we built an opera house with plantation money. This time we are building a stadium and our money comes from industry.”
Brazil is similarly hoping to prove how far it has now come. A year from now, Manaus will be among 12 venues that look likely to provide some of the most stunning settings the beautiful game has ever known, but beyond the four-week tournament’s push into the outer reaches of the global soccer empire, the long-term legacy is far from assured due to corruption, poor management and weak attendances.
At first, it may seem strange that the sport has any ground left to conquer in Brazil. The five-time World Cup winners may not be the home of soccer, but Brazil is arguably where the game has been played with the greatest style, passion and success.
The government is spending 31 billion reais (US$14.4 billion) on the World Cup to accelerate social and economic development, and to modernize the image of Brazil from the Rio-centric stereotypes of samba, carnival and beaches.
By building and refurbishing stadiums, it aims to demonstrate the maturity of a nation that has moved in the past 50 years from dictatorship to democracy, from hyperinflation to stable economic growth and from staggering inequality toward a somewhat more balanced society.
No one pretends Brazil is there yet. Although it is vying with Britain to be the world’s fifth-biggest economy, it is racked by chronic problems, many of which have become evident in the cities that will stage World Cup games next year.
Manaus is a case in point. While six of the host cities will participate in the FIFA Confederations Cup test event that starts on Saturday, the construction of the Amazonia Arena is over time, over budget and likely to be underused once its four World Cup matches are over.
Building a venue in this remote island city of 2.3 million residents was always going to be a stretch. Located in one of the planet’s last great wildernesses, Manaus is doubly isolated — first by the confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes, then by a sea of green forest that stretches close to 950km on all sides. The electric storms that buffet Manaus sometimes overload the local grid and burn out computers, air conditioners and fridges. Rainy-season downpours can turn a building site into a swimming pool. The equatorial sunlight is so intense that it can bleach colored plastic seating.
This makes everything more difficult and expensive, yet the planners opted for a complex steel-lattice design, which is ostensibly modeled on a traditional hand-woven basket, but looks remarkably similar to the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing.
Unlike the Chinese capital, there is no nearby cheap and abundant source of steel that can be delivered on time to the required technical standards. Instead, all 6,700 tonnes are being smelted in Portugal, shipped across the Atlantic and down the Rio Negro. Only two of the three ships have arrived.
To lift these giant weights into place, the builders have also had to ship in heavy-duty cranes from China and the US. That can be difficult during even the dry season, when the waters of the Rio Negro are too low for container ships, which means equipment has to be flown in at even greater expense.
Budget holdups have added to delays. The roof of the stadium ought to have been put in place in March, but the structure is only 60 percent finished.
The local soccer club, Nacional, were supposed to be playing in the new stadium, but they are having to make do with a municipal ground with two open ends, missing floodlight bulbs and a hand-operated scoreboard with wonky numbers. Whether the team from Serie D — Brazil’s fourth division — are ready for a 43,000-capacity World Cup super-stadium is another concern. Matches in the Amazonas league attract an average crowd of 588 supporters.
Although they are the most popular team in an area greater than Britain, France, Germany and Italy combined, Nacional attract an average attendance similar to that of Burton Albion (who play in the fourth tier of English soccer). Most soccer fans in Manaus support southern glamor clubs, such as Flamengo, Botafogo, Corinthians and Santos.
“Everyone in Brazil is critical of Manaus’ World Cup plans because they say the stadium will never be used. We might not fill it, but we won’t let it go to waste,” said Matheus Augusto, a devoted 19-year-old Nacional supporter. “I think more fans will come when we have a new stadium.”
Manaus is far from alone in having a mega-stadium and a minor team. In Brasilia, the 70,000-seat, US$495 million Mane Garrincha opened last week, but the capital’s teams rarely attracts more than a few hundred fans. The lower-division sides in Cuiaba will also struggle to fill even a fraction of the 47,000-capacity Arena Pantanal, another delayed construction project.
The World Cup will raise the international profile of Manaus and accelerate infrastructure improvements (the city claims investment of more than 5 billion reais on an airport upgrade, better connections to the national grid, improved transport and a 4G wireless network).
The government justifies the expense of stadiums in such far-flung places on the grounds of redistribution, in line with its aim to reduce inequality between north and south, black and white, poor and rich. Critics smell corruption — a longstanding problem in Brazil.
Soccer-star-turned-politician Romario said the venues at Manaus, Brasilia, Cuiaba and Natal are unlikely to survive beyond the World Cup.
“Maybe they’ll stage concerts at those stadiums a few times a month, but that aside, they’re a joke,” Romario said.
For the outside world, such debates may seen irrelevant. After all, it will be Brazilian taxpayers who bear the brunt of the costs, while FIFA rakes in the income from what looks likely to be the most lucrative World Cup ever.
However, the distances between venues, and cost of domestic flights and hotels, will make next year’s World Cup extremely expensive for visiting fans. Manaus may be off the beaten track, but not many venues can offer the post-match option of jungle tours, tribal dancing or swimming with pink boto dolphins.