MANAUS, Brazil -- At the end of the 19th century, building the Teatro Amazonas opera house in this jungle city during Brazil’s rubber boom was considered the impossible dream.
For some, this century’s equivalent — plunking a World Cup soccer palace in the heat and humidity of a city that sits 2,277 miles up the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean and doesn’t even have a first-tier Brazilian league soccer team — also has all the makings of a white elephant.
But supporters hope that hosting four World Cup matches — including the U.S. game against Portugal on June 22 — at Arena da Amazônia will not only elevate soccer in the Amazon region but help put this city of 1.8 million people on the map as a first-class tourism destination.
“The Cup will show the world what Amazonas really is. They think we’re Indians, that Manaus is just mata [jungle],” said Omar Vgaz, manager of the Boutique Hotel Teatro Cafe, which sits a block away from the pink neo-classical opera house that was the setting for the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo.
“But they’ll come and see there’s a city here,” Vgaz said. “It’s like Miami but without the ocean breezes.”
Manaus has booming electronics and motorcycle assembly industries, and the Manaus Free Trade Zone — created to lift the city out of its isolation from the rest of the country — is now home to 600 companies, including Samsung, Nokia, Sony, Honda, Yamaha and Harley-Davidson.
But that doesn’t mean Manaus hasn’t experienced cycles of bust. During its heyday, luminaries such as Italian tenor Enrico Caruso graced the gilded stage of the opera house. But the opera house fell on hard times after the collapse of Brazil’s rubber industry in 1912 and was even shuttered for decades.
It has come back since a 2001 renovation and is now the jewel of Manaus’ arts scene.
Supporters of the new Arena da Amazônia, which will seat 40,000 fans during World Cup matches and has a capacity of 44,500, hope it will prove as resilient and fill up when international teams are no longer in town.
“Soccer is very weak in our region,” laments Roque Nobre, who runs a newsstand in the center of Manaus. “But I think the new stadium is going motivate our teams and raise the level of play.” The four best regional teams — Princesa do Solimões, Nacional, Fast Club and Rio Negro — are considered third or fourth division in Brazil.
Amazônia has already hosted three test matches — audio system problems plagued the last game — and there are plans to host guest matches between teams from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo after the arena’s World Cup turn.
Nobre says Manaus is ready to host the World Cup and it will be good for business: “Despite being a little behind on the stadium and although you can’t put much trust in the politicians, they are going to pull this out. People who have never been here before are going to see that Amazonas is the most beautiful place that exists on the planet.”
The stadium — built to resemble a giant Amazon basket filled with tropical fruit (represented by multicolored seats) — was delivered late. But now, aside from a few refittings and a couple of patches of grass in the pitch that were burned by fertilizer, everything is ready for the June 14 World Cup debut when England meets Italy.
Manaus has faced a few challenges along the road to World Cup prime time — including England Manager Roy Hodgson’s declaration before the December World Cup draw that Manaus, with its heat and humidity — its “tropical nature” — is “the place ideally to avoid.”
That prompted Manaus Mayor Arthur Virgílio to say that his city in far northwestern Brazil was hoping for “a better team [than England] and a coach who is more sensible and polite.”
Of course, Manaus is where England ended up for its opener.
For the record, it will be hot in Manaus during the World Cup but perhaps no hotter than a July or August day in Miami, with highs approaching 90 degrees. The start time of the England-Italy game also was pushed three hours later to 6 p.m. local time, when it will be somewhat cooler.
Hodgson later penned a letter of apology and made nice when he actually visited the 320-year-old city in February. He toured the stadium and made requisite stops at the opera house and the “meeting of the waters,” where the muddy Amazon River and the black waters of the Rio Preto meet but don’t mingle.
It was clear the heat was still on Hodgson’s mind, but he said he expected all the teams coming to Manaus would prepare for tropical weather. And he diplomatically added he was sure that “all of them will find it a fascinating experience to come here.”
Manaus is hot, concedes native Roberto Braga, secretary of culture for the State of Amazonas, “but it’s not the kind of heat that ever killed anybody. Instead, it’s a familial warmth.”
“The only problem is that England isn’t going to win and that is not my fault,” joked Braga, who looks at the World Cup as a great opportunity to promote Manaus’ cultural riches. Hundreds of arts events have been programmed during the Cup.
In many ways, Manaus and Arena da Amazônia embody the difficulties Brazil has faced as it tries to ready a dozen stadiums in cities spread across a continent-sized country. Six arenas that were supposed to be delivered by the end of last year missed their deadlines, and three of them still aren’t finished.
There were construction setbacks in Manaus as well. Three people died — including one who tumbled from the roof of the stadium — during construction of the arena and the adjacent convention center complex.
Not only did the Portugal-made, X-shaped steel modules, which give the stadium its distinctive straw basket effect, have to cross the Atlantic — they needed to be moved all the way up the Amazon. They arrived aboard three ships over a six-month period.
Engineer Jerocilio Silva said the frames were supposed to arrive in 2011 but weren’t delivered until the second half of last year. Once they did arrive, the work schedule had to be accelerated to make up for lost time.
In a nod to the heat, the German-made Teflon membranes that cover the stadium were designed to reduce inside temperature by two degrees, said Silva.
As in cities throughout Brazil, social protests that peaked during last year’s Confederations Cup — a tune-up for the World Cup — are expected in Manaus. Most residents view demonstrations focusing on corruption, poor public services, an inadequate public education system and the high cost of hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games — as inevitable.
Plans call for keeping demonstrators well back from the stadium site, and the Amazon Military Command has a 600-strong armed contingency battalion and rapid reaction troops ready to support local police if the president requests.
Intelligence activities to analyze the potential for violence during the protests also have been stepped up, and anti-riot gear purchased.
Smoke grenades, teargas, light and sound grenades and rubber bullets are in the nonlethal arsenal that law enforcement officers will have at their disposal, “proportional to the threat,” said Brig. General Ubiratan Poty, chief of the Amazon Military Command Operations Center.
Meanwhile, arrivals at Eduardo Gomes International Airport in Manaus are greeted by the sound of jackhammers and a sign that says, “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are at work.”
Renovations to expand the airport’s annual capacity from 6.4 million passengers annually to 13.5 million began in November 2011 and are supposed to be completed in time for an influx of World Cup travelers.
But if they aren’t, it could be the Achilles’ heel of Manaus’ World Cup preparations. It recently took 1 1/2 hours to clear Customs in Manaus at a time when there were only two arriving international flights.
Close to 30,000 foreign visitors and thousands of Brazilian fans are expected in Manaus during the 11 days of World Cup play. In 2012, there were 34,720 international visitors to the larger Amazonas state for the entire year.
More than most World Cup cities, air transportation is key because it’s nearly impossible to drive to Manaus from southern Brazil and much too far away. There is only one reliable highway heading north toward the Venezuelan border.
“The rivers are our roads in the Amazon,” Poty said.
Everyone, from the restaurateurs who serve up generous helpings of tambaqui and other Amazonian fish, to cab drivers, souvenir shop owners, hoteliers and even an Indian chief are eager to cash in on the expected World Cup bonanza.
Chief Domingus, as he’s known by Portuguese speakers, hopes that some visitors will venture out to his community on a cliff high above Praia do Tupé (Tupé Beach) on the Rio Preto to watch the Dessana Tukana people’s native dances and buy their feathered earrings and woven handicrafts.
The tribe also has made other World Cup preparations. “We will be watching the games and we plan to buy a bigger television — bem grande,” really big, he said.
“We love our soccer. We have games here almost every afternoon,” said the chief, who was dressed in a loincloth and alligator-tooth necklace. “We are very confident that Brazil will win.”