06/09/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:06 EDT

In Amazon's Manaus, Brazil's dreamiest World Cup adventure

The Brazilian city Manaus, deep in the heart of the world's largest tropical rain forest, is frantically preparing for a 21st-century Amazonian wonder.

The World Cup is coming to this remote city, 4,500 kilometres away from Rio de Janeiro. To get here, you either fly in or ride a boat for five days up the Amazon River.

Adding to the challenge is the weather. In June, when it's not raining, it's hot, 34 degrees C recently, with 80 per cent humidity. England's team has bitterly complained about having to take on Italy here in their first match on June 14.

"We know it's too hot," laughs Miguel Capobiango Neto, an architect and political organizer who has been coordinating the Manaus World Cup project for the past four years. "But they need to come and see it's not so bad."

Standing on the street under a canopy of yellow and green streamers, he juggles three cellphones clipped to his hip.

"In Manaus we have the biggest city of the Amazon, but nobody knows Manaus exists. We'll have more than 200 countries watching the World Cup, this is the moment to present the real Manaus," he says, savouring the opportunity.

You can't fault his passion. Politics, dividing up World Cup spoils between 12 Brazilian cities, brought the tournament here. But the real challenge has been building a top grade, FIFA-approved stadium in the middle of the jungle.

The Arena da Amazonia is nearly ready, but just.  On the day we visited, two weeks before the first game is to be played, groundskeepers were cutting grass, workmen were laying lighting cables, others were testing the sound system.

The John Lennon anthem "Imagine" soared out onto the pitch, a perfectly apropos soundtrack.

Ask about the cost

To build this new stadium, with 42,000 seats, an older one half the size was torn down.

Most of the building materials, including 6,700 tonnes of steel had to be barged up the Amazon River.

Oval shaped, the stadium's design is meant to resemble a traditional basket: its upper level has see-through panels criss-crossed with beams in a woven pattern. The seats are painted in the colours of Amazon fruit — papaya, banana, mango, pineapple.

"I am very proud of it," says Capobiango Neto. Asked about the cost — $319 million for just four World Cup games — he counters, "Yes, but you can't do a beautiful stadium, a technological stadium without money.

"It’s a stadium," he adds, "to mark a new view of the city."

Still, the expense of Brazil's 12 new or refurbished stadiums for the World Cup has ignited a vigorous protest here.

Originally budgeted at $1 billion US, they've chewed up $4.2 billion amid crippling delays and a slew of complaints about corrupt construction contracts.

As well, a handful of workers have died on these job sites, including three who were building the Manaus stadium.

The mayor of Rio admitted last week it was a mistake to put the World Cup in 12 cities; when Brazil hosted in 1950, there were only six venues.

Gateway to the Amazon

Manaus's former wealth came from the 19th-century rubber barons who built the city. It’s resilience now comes from it being part of a protected trade zone.

The capital of the state of Amazonas, Manaus is the gateway to the Amazon, and part of Brazil's grand strategy to control the rain forest. Two million people live in the city, which is surrounded by hundreds of river villages and hamlets.

We boated along the Rio Negro, which merges downstream with the mighty Amazon, where we met Sergio Bringel an Amazonian researcher and noted hydrologist. As he directed us back into the current he said that the ecological system of the region seems to be in a period of flux.

Floods and droughts, normal occurrences, last much longer now, he said. This year's flooding reached near record levels.

"We need more research on the Amazon to get to know its dynamics," he says. "We also need sanitation to help us to keep this balance — there's almost none along here," pointing to a few flooded shacks along the banks.

Asked if he supports the World Cup coming to Manaus, Bringel says, "I believe we lost the opportunity to work for the Amazon. It's not about the World Cup — but about what is left behind, not just in the Amazon but all around Brazil."

We've heard that lament across Brazil these past weeks, the disappointment in what was to be the legacy of the World Cup promise. For example, a monorail to the Manaus stadium was once a key part of the plan; it was never even started.

Last week, the Brazilian government hastily produced a booklet detailing World Cup-related investments, to try to counter the grumbling. The stadiums did produce thousands of short-term jobs, and, in Manaus, as construction workers lined up at a ticket kiosk to claim their one complementary game ticket, they were excited at the prospect of witnessing world class soccer, and proud of their work.

Near the stadium, Hamilton Leao, an environmentalist and activist watches in dismay. "This stadium is for big clubs," he says. "But Manaus doesn't have big clubs."

Manaus's home club, Nacional, play in the bottom division of Brazil's soccer league, pulling in only a few hundred, maybe 1,000 or so to its games.

What will they do with such a big stadium after the World Cup is over, Leao wonders. The government is already searching for a public-private partnership to run the stadium. The maintenance costs alone will be $250,000 a month, according to Capobiango Neto.

As Leao sees it, "All the Brazilian people are going to pay for this. Me, my friends, because this stadium is a white elephant."

Dreaming big

Brazilians probably uttered similar sentiments back in the 1890s when Manaus staged its last ambitious, illogical project.

Anchoring the leafy Sao Sebastiao Square in downtown Manaus is the extraordinary Teatro Amazonas, a European-style opera house, opened in 1896.

Then, as now, materials were shipped up the Amazon River — elegant chandeliers made of French bronze and Venetian glass, Italian marble, wrought-iron balconies forged in England, red velvet covered chairs, lamps, mirrors, statues.

The vaulted ceiling is covered in painted frescos, depicting the arts, the floors are gleaming Amazonian hardwood, about the only local product. It is the first stop here on many tourists' itineraries.

Nonato do Nascimento greets us in the foyer of the theatre. At 79, born to a poor family in a simple house with dirt floors, he can still hardly believe his good fortune.

He helped refurbish the opera house in the 1970s. Along the way he has been an usher, tradesman, ticket seller, you name it; now he is an honourary guide. 

"Our people weren't used to listening and appreciating opera," he says. "But now the tickets are sold out, the opera house gets packed these days." (His favourite is "The Barber of Seville.")

He tours us around the "noble room" with its inlaid wood floor and Venetian lights, something you'd expect in a French Chateaux. His hand strokes a marble column.

"They're building another 'big theatre' in Manaus — for sports," I prompt him. "What do you think?"

His answer: "When I went there on inauguration day and entered the new stadium. I felt like I was not in Amazonas," he says. "It was like a dream."

A dream, hidden in the rain forest.