Tough Jungle Love

When England squares off against Italy on Saturday they’ll do so in the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil. Eight days later, the United States will face Portugal, also in Manaus. Playing in a new stadium may seem enticing, but neither England nor the United States especially wanted to be there. Manaus lies in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest where temperatures are expected to be in the high 80s and the humidity is expected to be, well, oppressive. England’s manager Roy Hodgson called Manaus, “not an ideal place to play football.” U.S. manager Jürgen Klinsmann offered similar sentiments. Not wanting to play a sport in which the players can run over 7 miles in the middle of a sweltering humidor sounds pretty reasonable. (And for what it’s worth, both Hodgson and Klinsmann have diplomatically walked back from their initial positions and are now very much looking forward to playing in Manaus.)

But it’s also easy to understand why Manausians were predictably rankled by all this Anglophone condescension, since their town isn’t just some Amazonian backwater outpost. Over a century ago, Manaus was a pretty happening place, a bastion of modernity entrenched in the rainforest. As the center of the rubber trade, it was the so-called “gaudiest city in the world,” whose wealthy denizens had their laundry sent out to Europe and refreshed their thirsty horses with champagne. As the first Brazilian city to have streetcars and one of the first Brazilian cities to have electricity (even before many European cities) Manaus was on the cutting edge of urban planning. It also features a grand opera house built at the end of the 19th Century, the Teatro Amazonas, a gorgeous neo-Classical edifice with paintings by Domenic di Angelis inside.

But then the rubber market diversified, and Manaus faded from the global stage. But they haven’t forgotten their glory days and perceived the draw that brought England to Manaus as karmic retribution. “The English smuggled our rubber away,” said Manaus’ mayor, Arthur Virgilio, “They stole our natural resources. There is a big debt to be paid.” The mayor is referring to explorer and rubber entrepreneur Henry Wickham (known as a “bio-pirate” in Brazil) who smuggled out some rubber tree seeds from the Amazon and planted them in Malaysia. Manaus was never the same. In addition to bringing together the nations of the world to play a little soccer, the World Cup does wonders to rekindle imperial-colonial animosities and reveal the squeamishness nations from the Global North and West experience when they have to visit Global South.

This World Cup offers Manaus as a chance to regain some of the glory of days past. The hope is to reintroduce Manaus as more than a jungle outpost with the hopes of bringing in more tourists. The Arena da Amazonia, for instance, was designed and built specifically for the World Cup (but what happens after is anybody’s guess). Since Manaus is accessible only by sea and air, barges filled with steel beams and cranes were floated down river. Special seats were constructed that can withstand the ungodly heat of the equatorial sun. Designed by the German architectural firm GMP Architekten, the stadium is supposed to look like an indigenous fruit basket, the multicolored seats representing various kinds of tropical fruits. But construction didn’t go so smoothly, as workers labored in unsafe conditions. Some perished, which led to questions about the labor conditions and to more protests.

The stadium’s problems and the unrest in Brazil have sparked concern in the usually imperturbable British media. Should the players take the anti-malaria pills even though the side effects could inhibit their athletic performance? And what about the pitch, which has been described as “thin and scarred by yellow lines”? And would English fans be safe in a place that British tabloid The Daily Mirror called “Murderous Manaus,” a “crime-ridden hellhole” filled with venomous snakes and tarantulas, where “armed and drug-crazed thieves roam shanty towns which are no-go for tourists.”

Some anxieties were alleviated when another British tabloid, The Sun, sent some “reporters” into the jungle (perhaps to prove they weren’t wimps like Becks, afraid of some little Amazonian orange frog) who found, much to their surprise, a tribesman clad in an English soccer jersey. The tribe to which he belonged was so devoted to England, the report added, that they put a spell on manager Hodgson to improve the team’s fortune in Brazil. So all this animosity was just overblown; the West and South can get along just fine. Except that the story was a hoax. Two reporters had ventured into the forest, found a tribesman, put an English jersey on him, snapped a photo, and fabricated a story. Nothing like using the locals as props to assuage any concerns about Western arrogance.

But this instance of ethically questionable journalism doesn’t mean that there aren’t some profound connections between the Amazonian tribes and the English and, indeed, all of us. In Burden of Dreams Les Blank documents the arduous task Werner Herzog and his crew undertook in making the film Fitzcarraldo, in which a rubber entrepreneur moves a steamboat over an isthmus to access untapped rubber trees that would help him finance the opera house of his dreams–an opera house built even deeper in the Amazon than the one in Manaus. Filming in the jungle, as you might expect, was exceptionally grueling, and the documentary captures Herzog in a particularly eloquent moment of frustration and despair:

Despite all the “fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival,” there’s “harmony” in the jungle. Sure, it’s the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder,” but it’s still harmony. Maybe the jungle can bring us all together in the end. Primitive, modern, these are just superficial, ultimately meaningless labels that mask a base but universal truth about humanity’s vulgar nature. The jungle unmasks all the pretense. And as terrifying and awful as that truth may be, it’s one that we all share!

Perhaps what Hodgson and The Daily Mirror fear most isn’t the heat or violence of Manuas, but rather that the rainforest will reveal something to them that they don’t particularly want to understand right now. Winning an international soccer tournament is the ultimate goal, which means you probably want to avoid plunging into the depths of your unconscious and finding the darkness within if you can avoid it. This is probably why the teams will be flying into Manaus, rather than traveling up the river like Marlow in Heart of Darkness or Captain Williard in Apocalypse Now. Obviously, air travel is quicker and more convenient. Also, it removes the risk that a trip up the river will inspire Wayne Rooney or Daniel Sturridge to realize that modern life is a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose,” as Marlow puts it in Conrad’s novel.

Early in Heart of Darkness Marlow tells his listeners of the “mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.” Only he’s not talking about the Congo; he’s describing England as the Romans would have found it when exploring Brittania. We all come from the jungle. So maybe the World Cup can bring these nations together, temporarily assuaging boundaries between North, South, East and West. Maybe, as Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez sing in the Official Song of the 2014 World Cup, “We Are One.” Ole Ola! Here we stand: watching a bunch of guys kick around a ball in sweltering conditions, united by the crushing terror and indifference of the natural world.

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