Manaus waits to see if the World Cup sows future benefits

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

The June 25 match was the fourth and final FIFA World Cup game at Manaus’ new Arena da Amazônia, leaving many here wondering whether any event might ever again pack the venue whose shape was inspired by a straw basket full of colorful 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 $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 and as karma would have it, his team ending up playing and losing here, and there also were a few too many references by international soccer writers to the old 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: “OK, 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.’’

But jokes aside, the question now for this city of 2 million people is: Was it worth it? Did Manaus get the visibility it hoped for as a World Cup host city, and what will become of its state-of-the-art, 44,500-capacity stadium?

A new survey by QuestionPro, a software provider for online surveys, found that 50 percent of Brazilians said their country should not have hosted the Cup at all, and 65 percent said the more than $11 billion Brazil spent on preparations should have gone to fund social programs.

But in Manaus, some skeptics have come around after seeing the droves of visitors the Cup pulled in. The local World Cup organizing committee said it got “excellent” numbers on visitor satisfaction and that Manaus was 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 likely won’t be coming to watch soccer, said Freire, who had gotten 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 fútebol culture.

The game is played endlessly from open fields to remote Indian villages in the Amazon, but the four best regional teams — Princesa do Solimões, Nacional, Fast Club and Rio Negro — are considered third or fourth division in Brazil.

Games attract only a few thousand fans, and the caliber 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 futebol. 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 Tarcisio Tida, a 41-year-old cab driver. “They will have to train harder, have better uniforms but they can grow into that structure.”

Two local training facilities — Estadio Carlos Zamith and Estadio Ismael Benigno — were completed for World Cup use but none of the competing teams trained there. Now, local clubs will use them to encourage the development of soccer.

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

It took about 2,100 workers nearly four years to build it. 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 also is 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. pitch.

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 here, the facility would be more than overkill. But the state’s Extraordinary Secretariat for World Cup Matters (Secopa) said there’s “no risk of the arena becoming a white elephant” because it won’t be used solely for soccer and also is expected to host concerts, fairs and other big events.

By the end of last Saturday’s matches, eight other Brazilian host cities — Cuiabá, Curitiba, Recife, Porto Alegre, Natal, Salvador, Brasília and Fortaleza — also had seen their last World Cup action.

In some of them, it was touch and go whether the stadiums would be completed in time. All, however, seemed to have held up to the World Cup test, and the level of play in most games has delighted fans.

But whether these gleaming new and renovated soccer palaces become deteriorating white elephants is a question for the months and years ahead.

In Manaus, some are worried about the cost of maintaining the Arena da Amazônia, 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 sidewalks and asphalt surrounding it,” Maciel added.

A monorail project was canceled long ago.

But Erick Melo, a 31-year-old businessman who runs several retail shops in Manaus, is a skeptic-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 Cup 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 program rung up $7.25 million in sales.

Among them was Mário 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, giving him the experience of participating in a mega-sporting event.

Melo said he imagined world class acts like Paul McCartney or Metallica playing at the stadium.

He also was impressed with the organization 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,” he said. Melo noted the efficiency of the public transportation system that shuttled fans from the city’s center to the stadium, and the additional police presence.

Indeed, Secopa said the crime rate in Manaus was down 3.9 percent during the Cup.

Much of Manaus’ commercial life is tied to its free-trade zone, where some 600 factories turn out everything from motorcycles to televisions, but officials would like to see the Amazon city develop as a tourism and cultural hub as well.

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 return.

Manaus’ Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market — packed with everything from fresh fish and dried shrimp to medicinal herbs, rainforest potions and souvenirs — reported an increase in visitors during the Cup. A tourism information booth at the market, where 138 people learned English to help World Cup visitors, fielded 500 inquiries.

When it comes to tourism, the only way to go is up. In 2012, there were only 34,720 international visitors to the entire state of Amazonas.

If Manaus does get the hoped-for boost in tourism, it will have an airport that can handle the influx. As part of improvements timed to coincide with the World Cup, Eduardo Gomes International Airport was modernized and expanded to handle 13.5 million passengers annually — more than twice its pre-Cup capacity.

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.”