Argument

Is Playing Soccer in Manaus Worth $800,000 per Minute?

Is Playing Soccer in Manaus Worth $800,000 per Minute?

The Cameroon versus Croatia game Wednesday will be just the second World Cup match played at the Arena da Amazônia in Manaus. By next Wednesday evening, when Honduras and Switzerland haul their sweaty bodies from the turf, the venue will have served its purpose entirely — six years of planning for six hours of soccer.

Organizers of major sporting events are increasingly concerned with the tricky business of legacy costs and benefits, but few are pretending this is the start of something special in Manaus. While the stadium may have been built for futebol, the location itself — with its oppressive heat, humidity, and malaria risk — plainly is not.

Juninho, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, recently revealed he played in Manaus just once in his career and looked relieved there’d be no repeat. Rivelino, part of Brazil’s legendary 1970 side, went further. "It’s absurd to play a World Cup game in Manaus," he said. "It is far too hot and with such a high humidity level that you start sweating the moment you leave the locker room."

Aside from the climatic conditions, supply and demand will soon render the stadium practically obsolete. The spaceship in the jungle will become the home of Nacional, the biggest club in the state of Amazonas, but it has not competed in the Brazilian top flight for almost 30 years. Crowds in the Amazonian league are far too small to justify its ongoing existence. Even FIFA says Manaus is "not a traditional hotbed of Brazilian football."

In this respect, the problem of World Cup white elephants is not unique to Manaus. Natal does not possess a top-flight team worthy of being housed in the impressive Arena das Dunas, nor would any local side come close to filling the vast stadiums erected in Cuiabá and Brasilia — the latter accommodating 69,439 people and costing $900 million.

Of course, in a sense, they are all white elephants. Even the derby clash between storied rivals Flamengo and Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro has attracted low attendances in recent times, an issue brought about by poor pricing and social conditions in the city. If the iconic Maracanã cannot be filled, what chances are there for the rest?

It’s a familiar story when the World Cup comes to town — or at least to a town without a thriving club team. After the 2002 World Cup, cities in Japan considered using their empty stadiums for wedding ceremonies. More recently, Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium has become an unloved monument to the success of FIFA’s month-long money spinner in 2010. Only U2, Coldplay, Justin Bieber and a one-off visit from Manchester United have come close to filling it since. The local team plays to sub-5,000 crowds.

At least with Green Point occupying valuable real estate in a flourishing city, there is potential for future revenue. In Manaus there is no such hope. This is a place more likely to be hit with yellow fever than Bieber fever. Elephants in the jungle are nothing new. It’s just that this one cost $300 million.