“It’s too friggin’ hot, it’s too friggin’ humid and it’s at the end of the friggin’ world,” says 70-year old Terry Baker, who likes the word ‘friggin’ and doesn’t like world of Manaus — the largest settlement in the middle of the Amazonian jungle.
Baker’s testimonial of the city will perhaps not make it to the ‘Magic Manaus’ brochures (where old English couples, such as Baker, are seen giving two thumbs up in the midst of a jungle-trail) at the city’s Eduardo Gomes Aeroporto. But his quote is sure to go straight into the ‘Do-What-It-Friggin-Takes-To-Support-England-At-The-World Cup’ archives back home.
Don’t be fooled by its global address. Although Manaus may sound exotic, it isn’t. And neither does the most seasoned tourist take very well to it. As Baker already mentioned, the weather is far from suitable. As is its suffocating smell, aptly described by ESPN.com’s senior writer Wright Thompson as “a mix of brackish water, diesel and sewage.”
But it is this very pungence of gasoline that puts food on the plate of the Manaós (the people of Manaus), as the region is industrial in nature. A factory town, clouded by a thick blanket of brown chimney smoke, causing most to cough and splutter on arrival.
However, arrive they do in the thousands, to catch the six group matches allocated to the city’s newly built Arena da Amazonia. It’s a UFO like structure that even the most optimistic sees no future for once the World Cup ends, especially with Amazonia not having the time or resource to even put up a state football team. “But when (World Cup is) on, we no complain. It’s okay that government throws away tax-payers’ money” says Dani, an indigineous lady who runs a youth hostel called Nativos.
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Sandwiched between an abandoned cold storage and an empty nightclub, the hostel is situated on a street called Rua Baraode Jaceguai, a street that most locals don’t seem to be aware of. This seems to be the back-of-beyond’s back-of-beyond, until the hostel’s gates lurch open. Half of England (the northern half, from their accents) is in there and also the crowded half of Australia. And you instantly know which side of Nativos is which by taking one look at the paraphernalia hanging from the balconies and walls.
“Welcome to the jungle, mate,” says Sydneysider Gregory, who is wearing little else but a string of banana leaves around his waist. “And I’ve got a whole tub of mosquito repellent on. Those vampires suck you alive.”
The effective mosquitoes and ineffective table-fans keep the Aussies and the Poms mostly in no man’s land — the common garden area which also holds a baby pool in its belly. At any given time, even in the dead of night, 30 half-naked men cool off in its waters like a tiger in a watering hole.
“What else do we do here?” asks the brilliantly named Elvis Morning, a man from Gloucestershire. “It’s too hot to sleep and it’s too late to go looking for beer. And we’ve drained out every drinking hole in the vicinity in any case.”
I ask the inevitable question. If their teams weren’t playing here, would they have avoided coming to Manaus? “Surely you’re wrong,” slurs Georgio, and Italian-Australian man who has washed down one can too many. “I think it’s every man’s secret fantasy to cut off from the world and just watch his favourite sport, you know? Manaus gives you just that. It’s a Lord of the Flies kind of thing, you know? No nagging wives, no nagging bosses, just you and your football, you know?”
Baker doesn’t know. “What a load of friggin’ horse-poop,” he says, with his eyes closed in the pool. “This is the World Cup son, not some friggin’ Golding novel. I’m here for England and to be honest, I don’t even like our players very much.” Baker is a Tottenham Hotspur fan and finds no representation of his club in the national side. “There are more Spurs players in the Brazil squad (one, in Paulinho) than our own,” he cries.
Still, it doesn’t stop him from colouring his well-receded white mop with a red cross hours before England kick-off their campaign against Italy. “See you later boys,” he yells at the hostel’s doorstep, turning around with a sympathetic wave to those who don’t have tickets. “I’m off to sing our boys home.” They lose 2-1.
And by night, Baker has packed his bags. “Getting out of this mosquito-infested mess,” he says. “Anywhere but friggin’ Manaus.”