When it became clear after the World Cup draw that both England and the US would play games in Manaus, England manager Roy Hodgson instantly showed promising verbal form by explaining the problem with Manaus was “the tropicality” (a word actually already invented a generation ago by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso; could Roy, who really is a man of unexpected depths, actually have been making an oblique reference to Caetano’s great hit “Tropicalia”?). Meanwhile, reaction in the US seemed strangely unexcited by a trip to the world capital of biodiversity (see, for example, Slate’s reaction to the draw).
All stereotypes have flipsides, so while the tabloids predictably plugged the Green Hell angle, the local politicos played up the Garden of Eden. Manaus mayor Artur Virgilio acidly noted Hodgson was clearly one of the few foreigners “who does not dream of coming to Manaus” and forced the British consul to earn his diplomatic salary by saying, no doubt through clenched teeth, that Manaus was actually a terribly nice place. So: Manaus. What are the facts? What does it all mean for Wayne, Clint and Mario?
Manaus versus Belém: the real insanity of Manaus as a venue
The first thing to say – although of no climatic comfort to our Anglo-American boys – is that all Brazilians outside Manaus itself also think it makes no sense to play games there, not because of the climate but because the Amazon World Cup venue should have been Belem, the Amazon’s other city, rather than Manaus.
The fact Manaus is a venue at all is Exhibit A in the argument that corruption and smoke-filled rooms rather than logic and economics dictated Brazil’s selection of venues.
Manaus and Belem, roughly the same size at around 1.5 million people each, have a Madrid-Barcelona, Moscow-St Petersburg type relationship, fiercely disputing urban primacy at all sorts of levels. But football is one of the few areas in their sibling rivalry where one of them holds undisputed sway – and it isn’t Manaus. Manaus has never supported anything more than a third division side, whereas Belem has two sides, Paissandú and Remo, which have been in the top flight occasionally, albeit not for several years.
A good English parallel would be to think of Manaus as Halifax Town, and Belem as Sheffield Wednesday and United – actually a rather exact parallel, since Belem, thanks to its footballing history, has its Hillsborough – the Mangueirão, an international class stadium. I can personally vouch for the international dimension, since the first and so far only time I have seen Brazil play in Brazil was a 2-0 victory against Chile played there in 1991. More memorable than the match was the experience of being jammed in a crowd on an exit ramp while fans in the stand high above amused themselves by pissing into the plastic bags the beer was served in, tying them up and throwing them onto the helpless multitude below. Ah, the glories of Brazilian football!
The Mangueirão, in other words, is a perfectly adequate stadium, especially with the facelift the World Cup would have provided. It is fairly new, having been built in the 1980s, holds 45,000 spectators and has excellent visibility from every angle; just google “Mangueirão Estádio” and check out all the spiffy photos. Manaus had a stadium worthy of a tropical Halifax Town, a shabby concrete bowl on the airport road. There was always going to be one Amazonian venue – it would have been politically impossible for any Brazilian government to ignore an entire region of the country. But it coulda, shoulda, woulda been Belem in any process ruled by a minimum of rationality. However, this is Brazilian politics.
Manaus is the capital of the state of Amazonas, Belém is the capital of the state of Pará. The Amazonas politicos were faster out of the starting blocks, and had a couple of native sons in senior positions on key congressional committees. The Pará politicos were handicapped by the loss of two of their leading lights in corruption scandals; although no less corrupt than their Paraense peers, the Amazonas politicos were better at fending off investigation. So on judgment day the insanity verdict was duly delivered, Manaus got the nod and Belém is still seething. Not that it would have made much difference on the tropicality front: Belém is slightly cooler than Manaus, and, crucially, has more of a river breeze, but it’s still even closer to the equator than Manaus and very similar in terms of temperature. All the same, the reports of the climatic challenges ahead for footballers are wildly exaggerated.
Manaus: meteorological realities
Time of year makes little difference to temperature in Manaus; in the coldest month (January) the daily high is 86F, while in the hottest month (August) it’s 91F. In June, when all Manaus matches will be played, it’s 88F. But the critical point here is that these numbers refer to the daily highs, around lunchtime, when no games are scheduled and sensible amazonenses are either in a hammock or in air conditioning.
Most games in Manaus, including those involving England and the US, will be played at 6 in the evening, just as the sun is setting. At this time of day the temperature will already have been falling fast for an hour or so, and will be around 75F, at probably about 65% humidity – hot, certainly, muggy, certainly, but not unknown conditions even in England on a hot summer night, and downright familiar to any US player from the south or Florida.
Tips for Roy and Jurgen: the tactical implications of Manaus weather patterns
I would argue the issue with playing matches early evening in Manaus in June is not so much heat or humidity as the likelihood of thunderstorms. In June the rainy season is winding down but it’s still a rainy season month, with the chance of rain at some point during the day over 50% throughout the period matches will be played.
The issue is not so much whether there’ll be rain – there will be – but how and when. The time it is likely to come as the proverbial tropical downpour, as opposed to a shower, is exactly the time the matches are scheduled. As the day goes on, the scattered clouds in the morning assume menacing thunderhead shapes.
Around 5 in the afternoon on many days the pressure drops and the winds get up, an infallible sign of rain. Then, typically around 6pm – kick-off! - thunder and lightning as the rain comes down in sheets. It won’t last for long, typically about 20-30 minutes, but it’s pretty impressive while it lasts.
So for teams long on physicality but short on skill compared to their silky Latin opponents, the tactical implications could not be clearer. Pray for rain! Pray not for a different venue, but for Manaus to have an absolutely typical June day. Pray for a thunderstorm around kick-off, because it will be heavy enough to negate the yawning gulf in skill and play to your strengths of, well, strength. The ball will be slick, the pitch will be heavy, conditions for goalkeepers will be atrocious. In other words: get those crosses in! Boot it forward! Pepper the goalkeeper! Keep it in the air! Scramble a couple of ugly goals, probably from corners, but give it all you’ve got in the first half, because it won’t last.
At half-time, the pitch will almost certainly be drying out, the rain will have moved on. Pull off the front two for defenders, put 11 men behind the ball, and even Balotelli or Cristiano Ronaldo will have trouble getting through. On no account mount an attack if it isn’t raining. Not worth the risk of a counter-attack.
And then head back to your bases thousands of miles away from Manaus with three undeserved points in your underdog pockets, thanking your lucky stars that you played Italy or Portugal in the only World Cup venue where there was a chance that the weather could compensate for your abject football failings.
An apology to Mayor Virgilio for all the nasty comments about his weather would be very much in order.
By David Cleary
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona