The Amazonian capital has charmed visitors from all over the world but failure to find a buyer for its 40,000-seat stadium could force spending cuts.MANAUS, Brazil — There is no doubt that after five years of criticism and controversy, the past two weeks of World Cup soccer in Manaus have been a roaring success.
Already chosen by FIFA as the best cidade-sede in Brazil, on account of several factors including security, care for its visitors and the excellent volunteers, Manaus has far exceeded the admittedly low expectations held by Brazil and the rest of the world.
Slated in some sections of the media, particularly in the months since England was drawn to open its World Cup campaign here against Italy, it has proven its worth as a fantastic host. A poll shows that more people are in favor of the tournament here than in any other host city, and it shows.
Many visitors are feeling so at ease here they have expressed a reluctance to move on to other more illustrious cities like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. Of course, though, there is a "but." The Arena da Amazonia has proven a magnificent World Cup venue over the past 14 days, but there are many question marks over its future.
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Built at a cost of 220 million euros — 67 million euros over budget — using 75 percent federal government funding that must be paid back over the next 20 years by the State of Amazonas, nobody is quite sure how the money will be raised when the world packs its bags and leaves the city.
A 333,000 euro Ernst & Young report has been commissioned by the local government to establish the best way forward, and while high-ranking officials await its completion after requesting further investigation into two particular aspects of the initial findings, plans are very much up in the air.
The Mayor of Manaus, Artur Vigilio Neto, even admits the stadium could be a dreaded "white elephant."
"I think it could be a white elephant if the state government insists on keeping it in its hands," he told Goal. "They should sell it to private initiatives, who have a lot of entrepeneurs that can promote international shows and bring a lot of people, because my intention is to receive one event after another."
Neto's message is clear, and he stresses at every available opportunity that the Arena, with its capacity of 40,549, should be passed on to private investors.
Some of the proposals are more fanciful than others: "I am discussing with an entrepreneur from show business in Brazil, who owns the trademark of Rock in Rio, he wants to do that here in the jungle with us. I have heard that many, many pop stars have dreamed of singing for a low price in the Amazon jungle.
"I think we will have a lot of Olympic Games here, we are preparing our Olympic Villa to receive people who want to train here. I think about tourism in a very strategic way. I don’t want the World Cup to finish and everything to finish with it. No. I have a lot of ideas which are consistent, one with the other."
UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is the second most popular televised sport in Brazil after soccer, and local champion Jose Aldo is expected to provide a big draw in the mayor's attempts to bring several events to the region in December.
And Evandro Melo, the local World Cup coordinator of the State of Amazonas, says Rio de Janeiro club Vasco da Gama has already requested to play at the stadium in July, and many more teams have also expressed an interest. When Sao Paulo's Corinthians played here in the Copa do Brasil before the tournament, the stadium was packed, and Melo believes the local passion for soccer will guarantee big crowds.
Brazilian sport minister Aldo Rebelo also dismissed talk of a "white elephant" and echoed Melo's comments on the strength of soccer in the region.
"It's important to remember than since the 1970s, Manaus have had great stadiums, Brazil have played here, there have been big club matches here," he told reporters. "The arena was constructed but there was already a great stadium here before, so Manaus has a great stadium just as it had before."
But back in 2009, the respective governments of each of the 12 host cities searched for public-private partnerships, or outright buyers. Only Manaus, Brasilia and Cuiaba were unsuccessful.
The State of Amazonas has set aside a budget item to repay the loan, which means although technically it is not drawing money away from public spending, cuts will be inevitable if it dips into the 330 million euro annual federal reserve after failing to sell the stadium, or even making a loss on it.
Neto actually saw his proposal for a smaller stadium defeated before he was elected to power, and gives the impression he is playing a bad hand as well as possible.
He insists he has made a lot of changes in his 16 months as mayor, and believes he can succeed where the previous regime failed in sourcing private invesment.
While there is hope among the very upper echelons of both the local and federal governments that the stadium and other purpose-built facilities will be used long after the World Cup, the lingering doubts are unfortunate. Because for this World Cup, Manaus exceeded itself in every other capacity.