White Elephants in Brazil

The Arena Amazonia in Brazil Is a World Cup-Sized Problem

Brian Mier

The Arena Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil. All photos by the author.

The World Cup will begin in Brazil in less than 100 days, when the host country takes on Croatia at the Arena de São Paulo, a lavish, yet-to-be completed 64,000-person stadium in the rising South American power’s biggest city. You can almost hear the samba already. The Arena de São Paulo is one of 12 newly built or refurbished venues the Brazilian government promised when it won hosting privileges of the biggest sporting event in the world. While the exact numbers have yet to be tallied, the whole operation will likely run around 300 percent over budget and sport a $4 billion price tag. Chump change to Vladimir Putin and his $50 billion Sochi Winter Olympic Games, but still quite a load for a country where 16 million people earn less than $30 a month.

So what’s going to happen to these football palaces once the Cup is over? Although some of the 12 cities where World Cup games will take place have first-division professional soccer teams, like São Paulo, where the legendary Corinthians squad will call the Arena de São Paulo home, people in other cities complain that they are stuck footing the bill for white elephants. Neither Brasilia, the nation’s capital, nor Cuiabá, a city in the center of the country, have first-division teams, but the cries of foul in those cities pale in comparison to what residents of Manaus, a city of 2 million in the middle of the Amazon jungle, are facing.

In Manaus, the state government ripped down a perfectly functional stadium that was home to the city's fourth-division (think Single-A baseball) team, to build a $290 million arena full of luxury skyboxes. But the real absurdity of the Arena Amazonia, as the 42,000-capacity stadium is called, lay in its process of construction.

Most building materials for the Arena Amazonia came from a city in Portugal called Avieto. Manaus, being so remote and surrounded by millions of square miles of jungle, has no roads capable of being the route for tons and tons of steel and other heavy equipment. So that meant that millions of dollars in materials had to be shipped across the Atlantic and 800 miles up the Amazon River. Among the materials shipped include special plastic chairs that can withstand the Amazonian heat, and lasers that were used to perfectly level the field before the imported grass was laid in. The fact that all of this was done for only four world cup games played over the course of three weeks has led some people to compare the project to the lavish Manaus Opera House, the quizotic construction of which was the inspiration for the Herzog movie Fitzcarraldo. The United States will play Portugal in Manaus on June 22.

The center of town

I traveled to Manaus for a few days earlier this month. It is a friendly city full of great fish, good bars, and lousy traffic. I stayed at a friend’s house on the outskirts of town. He invited me to come with him to his job at Manaus's city hall to take advantage of the air conditioning and Wi-Fi access. As I sat there working, an alderman named Wladimir José walked in. I asked what he thought about the World Cup in Manaus. He cited a few positive economic indicators about Brazil, such as the 4.5 million new jobs created in the last three years. “A lot of people are complaining about the Cup,” he said, “but you have to look at the economic benefits. The government stimulated the construction industry over the past decade to generate jobs and the strategy worked. This arena here in Manaus generated 3,000 construction jobs. Unlike most building projects that end relatively quickly, this one took three and a half years. That had a big effect on the local economy. There is also the question of tourism. We are hoping that the spotlight on Manaus during the World Cup will result in more foreigners coming here afterwards.”

Later, I visited Cicero Custodio, president of the Amazonas State Construction Workers Union (Sintracomec-AM). I asked him what he thought about the benefits of the stadium for the local economy.

“It was a terrible experience,” he said. “First of all, most of the workers weren’t even from Manaus. Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of them were brought in from other states, like Bahia, and they were sold a load of goods by the company. Many of them didn’t even get a ticket back home. Our union ended up buying return tickets for hundreds of them. You would think that with all the money spent on this thing and all the talk about job generation they would have paid something higher than average, but the company paid the lowest possible salary they were legally allowed to.  They told the workers they would have a nice place to stay when they got here, but they were crammed in 12 to a room. Working conditions were terrible. They were forced to do unpaid overtime and were constantly harassed by the foremen. There were big issues with worker safety. Three people died in on the job accidents. Each time that happened we stopped working. When the last guy died we went on strike again, and the government finally started listening to us. Conditions improved, but it was too late; the damage had already been done. I will say this, though: The deal we got for building the visiting teams’ training facilities is nearly perfect. They took our complaints into account for this project—too bad it’s so much smaller.”

After eating a lunch of fried pirarucu filet in a shack on the edge of the two-mile wide Rio Negro, I walked through the port district. It is mind-boggling to think that here, 800 miles up into the middle of the Amazon jungle, the river is still so deep that ocean-going cargo ships can dock. Manaus turned into a city during the rubber boom of the late 1800s, and there are funky old mansions and warehouses scattered within the crumbling downtown high-rises. It is weird and fascinating to sit there, sweating in the jungle humidity in the middle of a big city and look across to the other river bank to see absolutely nothing but trees. I met my friend at a bar called Armando’s. “This is a legendary bar where poets and radicals used to hang out during the military dictatorship,” he said. “It has its own Carnaval group. It’s gotten a bit touristy, but it’s still one of my favorite bars, so let’s have a beer. I invited my friend Vasco.”

A view of the Rio Negro, which even 800 miles inland is still deep enough for cargo ships.

It turned out that his friend, Vasconcelos Filho, is one of the members of the Manaus People’s Cup Committee. The Cup Committees are horizontally organized groups of social movements, academics, and activists, from the 12 cities where the Cup is going to take place, who have spent the last several years monitoring FIFA and government activities related to the World Cup. They were an important actor in last year’s street protests. They are not anti–World Cup, per se, but they don’t like the way FIFA and the Brazilian government are organizing it. Their motto is “World Cup for Whom?” and they complain about forced evictions and the huge rises in ticket prices that are driving poor people out of the stadiums and the surrounding neighborhoods. I ask him what the committee thinks about the current situation in Manaus.

“First of all,” he said, “the thousands of forced evictions that were supposed to take place here in Manaus didn’t happen. Normally this would make us happy, but the reason that they didn’t happen is because the governor didn’t keep his promise to build new transportation systems for the World Cup. We were supposed to have a new monorail and a BRT (bus rapid transit) system by now. One third of government spending on the World Cup was supposed to go toward transportation improvements, and you can see that none of that happened here. The traffic is still terrible. So what is the legacy of this whole thing going to be for us? They are only going to play four games in this new arena, and it will all be over. We’ll be stuck paying 500,000 Brazialian reals (about $215,000) a month in maintenance fees, and the government still hasn’t come up with a plan for how to use it after the Cup. It was a huge amount of money to spend when there are so many other important problems that could have been taken care of.

"Another problem is that 500 million reals was borrowed from the BNDES (Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank), and the citizens of the Amazonas state will spend the next 30 years paying it back. We have another very serious problem with sexual exploitation and are worried that, with all the tourists, it is going to get even worse. There is a huge problem in our state with child prostitution and human trafficking. Federal investigations are going on that seem to implicate top members of our state government in this. We welcome tourists, but we don’t want our city to turn into an international sex-tourism destination.”

Manaus is a unique and fascinating city, and I hope that more people get to know about it. The government spent a lot of money, but Brazil’s economy is doing well, and it can probably afford it. Even so, the Arena Amazonia looks like a colossal waste to me. In South Africa there is a growing cry to demolish stadiums built for the 2010 World Cup in cities that don’t have first-division soccer teams because of high maintenance costs. I wonder if a year from now people won’t try to do the same thing in Manaus.