By JENNY BARCHFIELD
2014-06-13 12:22 PM
MANAUS, Brazil (AP) -- The 2 million people of this Amazon rainforest metropolis were promised traffic relief. As a World Cup host city, they would have a dedicated rapid bus lane and a state-of-the-art monorail system to untangle the congestion tying up their streets.
But as Manaus prepares for its first World Cup match Saturday, the only change for commuters has been a new paint job, in the nation's yellow and green colors, brightening many of the underpasses they see as they sit in traffic.
What Manaus now boasts, however, is a new 44,500-seat stadium. The grand Amazonia Arena, with its wicker basket-styled frame, would be a worthy field for any top-division soccer team -- if only Manaus actually had one to use it after the World Cup ends. And visitors to this remote city will pass through a newly renovated airport, as long as it's not flooded by the rainstorms common here.
The project that most would have improved the daily lives of local residents, the $810 million overhaul of its public transportation system, was cut from the Sport Ministry's official list of World Cup infrastructure projects.
"It's shameful," said fishmonger Gilberto de Moraes Alberto, who hawks "jaquari" river fish at a popular market on the Rio Negro River. "This is a poor city and the needs here are enormous, but all we get are empty promises while the politicians stuff their pockets."
The fate of several projects to improve everyday life in Brazil's 12 host cities has unleashed widespread complaints of money wasted on fancy stadiums rather than invested in building schools or hospitals. Public dissatisfaction is particularly pitched in Manaus, where both the airport renovation and stadium construction ran over schedule and over budget.
The Amazonia Arena ended up costing $294 million, some 25 percent more than projected. It was supposed to have been finished a year ago, but even just three weeks ago, crews were scrambling to finish wiring and other crucial work. England and Italy will open the first match here on Saturday, followed by Cameroon vs. Croatia, the United States vs. Portugal, and Honduras vs. Switzerland.
Once the World Cup ends, and the estimated 52,000 foreign travelers leave Manaus, locals wonder what use the stadium will be to them. Manaus lacks a top-division soccer team, and the local club attracts just a few hundred spectators to its games.
Across the Solimoes River, in the impoverished town of Sao Pedro, a crowd withstood the suffocating tropical humidity to watch a recent tournament of local soccer clubs. Stray dogs angled for fallen morsels among spectators downing beers and junk food around the pitch. Players, many of them barefoot, raced up and down the field. Enthusiasm was running high: The winning team stood to pocket around $2,000 -- prize money raised from the local community. The idea of a multi-million dollar stadium in Manaus sparked angered reaction.
"All that money going into the stadium in Manaus, it really makes you mad if you stop to think about it," said Waldir Filho, a 49-year-old truck driver who helped organize the two-month tournament. "There's all this money to pay for something useless, but when it comes to decent schools or hospitals, there's nothing."
Officials have defended construction of Amazonia Arena, insisting it will be useful for events such as concerts or games with visiting top-tier teams. Recent matches by teams from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, in fact, drew sold-out crowds.
"Luckily, all six matches that have been held here were lucrative for the organizers," said Miguel Capobiango, a state official who oversaw World Cup projects until two weeks ago, when he resigned for reasons that are unclear. "I have no doubt there'll be great performances here that will attract lots of people."
Capobiango said the airport renovation, which tripled the facility's capacity, also would prove to be worthwhile, even if it cost $22 million more than originally planned.
The airport is nearly finished, with expanses of shiny marble and rows of new luggage belts. But there are problems. One recent downpour, a frequent occurrence during Manaus' six-month rainy season, flooded the new facilities and caused a bathroom roof to collapse. Outside, a maze of corrugated panels obscures mounds of red earth where a new parking lot was meant to stand.
"I'm really against the World Cup," said Israel Neris, a 36-year-old cargo company owner and native of Manaus. "We should have used that money that was spent on the World Cup on other priorities, but now it's too late anyway."
Regardless, Neris is among many Brazilians who are setting aside their hard feelings in time for the games. His neighbors, in fact, raised more than $5,000 to buy 130,000 colorful plastic flags to decorate their Alvorada community, despite its open sewers.
"Now is not the time to throw cold water on everyone's party," he said.
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