When England's soccer team arrives in Manaus, they'll find a city that is both foreign and familiar

The World

The river in Manaus is rising, but it shouldn't be a problem for soccer fans who come to town for the World Cup. This picture shows locals moving bananas in 2008.

Alex Gallafent

On June 14, England’s soccer team will play its first game of the 2014 World Cup, against Italy. The match will take place in Manaus — a city in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

And, get this: Manaus recently declared a state of emergency! Emergency!

The Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon river, has begun to swell. There’s a chance it could spill into the city — the 180-day state of emergency is intended to ensure that emergency services can easily do their work in case that happens. The water won’t reach Manaus’ Arena Amazonia; it won’t affect the soccer. But that didn’t stop newspapers describing the news as another ‘setback’ for Manaus, for Brazil and for the country’s World Cup preparations.

There have been problems, for sure, around security and the readiness of venues. There will probably be more. And the domestic debate over whether the World Cup ought to be staged in Brazil at all certainly isn’t going away. But for any soccer-loving visitors about to arrive in Manaus, here’s the not-so-dirty truth: everything will probably work just fine. 

That was more or less my experience, at least. I visited the city a few years back to report on political and civil society efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest. In particular, I was looking at attempts to put a price on ecosystem services—the kinds of common goods that rainforests, in particular, provide for the planet in things like carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

Back then, the Amazon was being chopped down at alarming rates to clear space for soy bean farming, urbanization and roads. Update: it still is.

In Manaus, though, all that feels very far away. It’s a city in a rainforest, but it is a city. Two million people live there. There’s even an opera house.

In England, the press breathlessly wonders if the soccer team will cope with the humidity of the Amazon. Manaus is very humid, yes, but it's not the only humid place on earth. In other words, it won’t be a voyage into the absolute unknown. Plenty will be familiar.

On arrival, English soccer fans will seek the comforts of home in local bars, if only for the sake of preserving a hard-won national reputation. Adhering to this pattern of behavior is a condition of departure from Blighty. They’re in luck: Brazil is one of the world’s largest beer markets. German immigrants got things going in the 19th century; as a result, brands of pilsner such as Bohemia dominate the landscape, though most popular local brands are now owned by major multinational breweries.

And what to eat? I was partial to grilled tambaqui, a gray/black freshwater fish common to the Amazon basin. Unless our typical English fan is particularly hungry, they won’t need the whole thing: the tambaqui, which looks disconcertingly like a piranha, can grow to more than 3 feet in length. But served up on a plate, it’s just a nice piece of grilled fish. 

For me that jump from exotic to prosaic, from Amazonian scaryfish to a simple supper, captures a shift in the generalized experience of much international travel these days. You’ve got to work really hard if you want a dramatic dose of culture shock, at least when you’re visiting a big city for only a short time. People sound different, sure. They may eat slightly different foods, and totally different ones — occasionally. The climate can take some getting used to. But you figure it out, you cope, you turn on the air conditioning. Ah, that's better. More like home.

In basic terms, the things you expect to function will in all likelihood function. Core experiences — airports, hotels, restaurant chains, transit networks — are more or less homogenous and global, in the most boring sense of the word. That can be a welcome thing, I suppose, if you’re there principally to watch a game (or have a meeting). Arrive, watch soccer, see a sight or two, stay safe, and go home. If Manaus and Brazil can deliver that kind of experience to its World Cup visitors, few will complain. 

Still, there is something wonderful about dropping into a world that’s impenetrably foreign and immersing yourself there. Imagine yourself in the cleats of a former Brazilian player named Mirandinha, for instance. In 1987 he joined a club in a faraway land. He became the first Brazilian to play in an English soccer league. Mirandinha’s new home was a city that’s still as foreign to most Londoners as Manaus: Newcastle, England. (By the way, that that’s the case is a mark against the provincialism of urbanite Londoners, and not the other way around.)

Snow and soggy fish and chips: now that’s culture shock. That said, I can imagine Mirandinha got somewhat used to those things over time. But, I wonder if he ever became truly comfortable with one of his teammates, England’s then-most mercurial talent: Paul Gascoigne, and his singing voice. Can one ever get used to something that has no prospect of improvement? Just after the Brazilian returned home, Gascoigne, a local lad, sang a love song, of sorts, to the river that runs through Newcastle: Fog on the Tyne.

Fog on the Tyne. It might as well be Sweat on the Amazon. Two cities. Two rivers. Forever joined by history and soccer. Sort of. Not really.

What does it all mean, eh? Frankly, who cares, so long as England’s finest* beat the Italians on June 14.

*Not our finest, I suspect, but all reason is suspended for the next month. Thank you for your patience.