The Road to Rio

By Tim Rich

“What’s it like?” It’s a question I am always asked whenever a World Cup comes around and over the course of the next few weeks I’ll try to give some idea of what covering the greatest sporting event on the planet feels like.
This is my fourth World Cup and by a distance it was the one I was the most apprehensive about. The first two were in France and Germany which were familiar enough and I’d been to South Africa several times before setting off for Cape Town four years ago.
But I’d never set foot in South America before the tournament and this would be my first World Cup or European Championship where I don’t speak the language (in Gdansk in Euro 2012 you could get by with German). In Manaus nobody speaks English.
There is a copy of Portuguese for Dummies on my bed but thus far I haven’t managed much more than um café por favor or the most important phrase in any language queiro “I want”.
I haven’t wanted for much. Despite what you might have read, England will not be playing in a clearing in the Amazon rainforest but in a city of two million, albeit a city with very few hotels. There is some availability for the game on Saturday but it is a jungle lodge 100 miles from the Arena da Amazonia and will set you back £500. Mauaus will have to find room for 7,000 England fans and a sizeable contingent from Italy. All in all some 85,000 will be coming to one of the strangest places ever to have staged a World Cup.
Manaus is a city the size of Birmingham, if Birmingham had had nothing done to it since 1908. Once, it was the Dubai of its age, with rubber rather than oil fuelling vast development, but the money has long gone and the gaudily-painted buildings, including an opera house that was taken piece by piece from Europe have rotted in the wet heat.
The rainforest proper lies outside the city limits, although as your plane lands it spreads before you, vast and limitless, broken only by enormous expanses of water big enough for ships to navigate to the Atlantic a thousand miles away. You feel privileged and humbled to have seen it.
All tournaments start the same – slowly. Before Euro 2008, I was swimming in a pool beneath the Alps at Berchtesgaden by the end I was in a hire car driving through the night between Basel and Vienna to make the second semi-final, squinting to keep my eyes open and on the road, shaking with tiredness.
On Saturday, I took a boat trip down the Rio Negro to where it meets the Amazon. As its name suggests, the Rio Negro is the colour of Guinness and when it meets the brown waters of the Amazon the two flow side by side for 10 miles because one is acid and the other alkaline. It is unimaginably vast and when the wind gets up the waves slammed against the boat like it was lon an open sea. The only difference was that when the water splashed into your face, it didn’t taste of salt.
Further upstream you can watch pink dolphins. They look ancient creatures with long teeth filled beaks, not far removed from the kind of sea creatures that existed at the time of the dinosaurs.
You can do these trips now because the World Cup has not yet begun. The journalists are arriving slowly; the engineers and the people who make sure the television relays work have been in Brazil for several weeks. They are the guys you start pumping for information. They tell you that the Arena da Amazonia is not quite finished yet – they are still building the car park. But they are confident the World Cup will work.
As for the image of Brazil as a nation ready to rip you off or steal your watch, they say it’s wildly exaggerated. On the Amazon I met an Italian called Vincent who has been travelling Brazil for two months now and rolled his eyes when you mention the scare stories. Manaus may be hot, the sweat may gush into your eyes, but it warm in other ways too.
As far as the World Cup is concerned, I don’t exist. As a journalist you are only recognised once you have an accreditation badge hanging round your neck and they only start to issue those on Monday morning. Without one, you might as well have stayed at home.
Over the next four weeks, I’ll try to give you a feeling of what it’s like not to have stayed at home. Manaus may have a population of two million but it is an outpost lost in the rainforest. But, over these coming four weeks, it and the rest of Brazil will feel like the centre of the world.