When England manager Roy Hodgson said, earlier this week, that the Amazonian capital of Manaus was the city to avoid in the 2014 World Cup draw, it seemed fate that his team would be selected to play there.
When the inevitable happened, there were immediate complaints. Despite also being drawn to play in the agreeable, convenient and metropolitan cities of Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, the 2014 World Cup became a “RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE” in the “GROUP OF DEATH” (two good teams, two weak teams…).
But I wasn’t complaining. Last month, I got to spend a week in the state of Amazonas with my photographer Gustavo Oliveira, covering two stories for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. And I will happily go back in June.
Many of the complaints about Manaus as a World Cup host city centre on its remoteness. Nestled in the north-west corner of the country, it’s closer to Venezuela and Colombia than to Rio. It’s also in the middle of the rainforest.
But after leaving from Rio’s domestic airport at sunrise and changing once in Belo Horizonte, Gustavo and I were landing in Manaus at around lunchtime, thanks to the two-hour time difference (Manaus is two hours behind Rio).
The journey was straightforward: an hour’s flight from Rio to Belo, a very brief layover (not even enough time for a coffee) and then onwards to Manaus.
We flew into Amazonas in the middle of a tropical rainstorm but nevertheless, the spectacular view from the plane showed how varied the landscape and environment was. From the fragmented banks of the Amazon river to the sprawling island city of Manaus, this was a different Brazil from the picture postcard we left behind.
After a quick turnaround, check-in and lunch, our first stop was the new World Cup stadium, the Arena da Amazonia. The 44,000-seat, £170 million ground has become an unfinished symbol of the extravagance and unbridled ambition of Brazil’s World Cup dream.
Frequently described as a “white elephant” for its lack of obvious successor, it has posed significant challenges for the construction team because of its location and tropical climate.
On the first day we visited, it was raining (November is the start of the wet winter) and so the site was sodden, covered in puddles. We picked up our hard hats and hi-vis jackets at the workers’ entrance and trod carefully through the mud to see the inside of the ground.
Filming inside the stadium, it still felt like the arena had a long way to go before it was finished, with only one month until the Fifa deadline. Some of the seats had been installed but the rains kept interrupting the welding.
But I have to say, even before we went to Manaus, I was a fan of the design of the stadium; from the projections, it looks like it will be stunning. And even at less than 90 per cent finished, the structure was impressive. Fashioned to represent an indigenous basket, it had a much more refined design that some of the other brutalist concrete arenas.
And though the criticisms are apt, it isn’t the case that Fifa gave Brazil the 2014 World Cup and so Brazil just decided to dump a brand new stadium in the middle of the rainforest.
The Arena da Amazonia is being built on the grounds of the old Vivaldo Lima stadium. There was a stadium on the site before; it was old, dated and only partially seated, and used to host local derbies between the two biggest teams in the city, Nacional and Rio Negro (both clubs celebrated their centenary this year). It was also the stage for the last Brazil game before they went to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup.
And unlike many new stadiums in wastelands on the edge of cities, it is beside the main thoroughfare through the city – easily visible and accessible.
We left the stadium feeling like it was far from complete and huge logistical experiment but with greater context for its construction.
After visiting the stadium, it was time to turn our attention to our second job. As well as immersing ourselves in the World Cup story of Manaus, we were also in the Amazon to cover an archery project, which aims to recruit potential future Olympic archers from villages on the river.
And in researching the story, I came across the blog, No Amazonas é Assim. So Gustavo and I met up with its creator Marcus in the centre of the old city, beside the famous Opera House, or Teatro Amazonas.
There in the square, we got to try tacacá, an extraordinary Amazonian soup. It is made with tucupi, a bitter yellow sauce from the manioc root, prawns (in their shells) and jambu leaves, which have an anaesthetising effect on the tongue, leaving the mouth numb. The combination of flavours is like nothing I’ve ever tried before: spicy, numbing, sour.
Directly opposite from the Opera House was the Galeria Amazonica, full of indigenous art and jewellery, and it gave us a good taste of what we’d be finding the following day. We also got to visit the riverside area of Ponta Negra, which is being regenerated, and see the impressive Iranduba bridge across the Rio Negro, on which we would be travelling the next day.
The Amazon rainforest conjures up so many evocative images: the jungle, the creatures, the tribes and villages but also a sense of adventure, exploration and mystique. So it was pretty exciting to head down the Rio Negro (one of two rivers that forms the Amazon along with the Rio Solimões) from the Marina do Davi port.
Travelling with Marcus, Edlucio, Angelo and Rosiane from the City Hall and education secretary (SEMED), we set off early for a 90-minute boat ride down the river in the hope of meeting Jardel, a 17-year-old star archer from the indigenous Kambeba village of Três Unidos.
Before long, the gridlocked city of Manaus was behind us and we had only the still river, lined with rainforest, for company. It surprised me how quiet the river was; though the port had been busy, there was little traffic. Occasionally we passed small local boats making slow progress through the inky water towards the city. But for an hour and a half, we just got to take in the incredible surroundings.
It was only really when we arrived at the village and the motorboat fell silent that it became apparent how far removed from the metropolis we were. The water was still, the air was calm and warm, and the only noise was the lapping shore and birdsong: utterly tranquil.
Walking up the rickety wooden jetty into Três Unidos, I still had no idea what to expect. It was so quiet, it was hard to imagine anyone living there. We passed a school – empty for the holidays – before finding tables covered in alligator bones and skins, and an open-air church on the riverbank.
After a brief chat with Valdemir, the village elder, and teacher Raimundo Kambeba, I was introduced to Jardel, an unassuming, patient and super talented teenage archer. Jardel told me 60 people live in the village and with trepidation, he told me he would have to move schools if he progressed with the archery project run by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS).
And one of the most telling things he said was that his days were previously filled with archery, for fishing and hunting, but no one thought anything of it until the coaching project was suggested. Because of it, indigenous communities and skills are a little more visible than they were before.
Not only did we test Jardel’s patience with a filmed interview but we also asked him to show us his skills with a bow and arrow for photographs. His cool demeanour will stand him in good stead for the pressure of competitive sport that no doubt awaits.
The hospitality shown us in the village was wonderful; the other boys were curious of us but also timidly keen to show us their talent. Professor Virgilio Viana, CEO of the FAS, later told us how the main objective of the project was the improve self-esteem among indigenous communities, particularly young people like Jardel, Deivide and Nelson.
Much has been written about Manaus’s lack of footballing heritage in the context of next year’s World Cup. But in both of the stories we were covering, we found a greater sporting culture beneath the surface than we expected.
After interviewing Jardel, a champion at the Indigenous Games in Amazonas, we also went to the Vila Olimpica, a sporting complex in Manaus where the young indigenous archers trained.
There, we met Roberval Fernando dos Santos, a Brazilian champion archer who has been coaching the boys, and it was clear how seriously the project was being taken. The complex has some 1,000 athletes training in 25 different sports amid fantastic facilities and expert coaches.
Fans of the oldest football team in Manaus – Nacional – were equally sincere and dedicated. I met Jeferson Fatin Castro, Natan Figueiredo and Mauricio Gama, all members of Apaixonaça, one of the supporters’ organisations. [KGVID]http://www.donnabowater.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Manaus-cut-2-Desktop.m4v[/KGVID]
I sympathised (as a Wolves supporter) when they told me how Nacional had fallen to the fourth division, having once been in the Brazilian Championship, or first division. They said crowds once filled the stadium but support was now down to the hundreds.
Their optimism, though, was heartening and unbounded. With a new stadium and a moment in the spotlight, they hope the club can be rejuvenated when they move into the Arena da Amazonia after the World Cup. And I hope they can too. Out of darkness, cometh light, after all.
No Amazonas é assim
For the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about Manaus and the Amazon. I found it wonderfully intriguing. From its rubber boom colonial and historic buildings (see the fantastic governor’s palace, Palacio Rio Negro) and its indigenous heritage (see the Indian Museum) to its own brand of the fizzy drink, guarana, it’s a place like no other.
And the thing that makes Amazonas is the Amazonians. I made many friends there and can’t wait to go back.
Sunday Telegraph: The indigenous Amazon archer aiming for Olympics glory
Daily Telegraph: Will the World Cup signal the rebirth of Amazonian football?