Arena da Amazônia, Manaus

Arena da Amazônia, Manaus’ World Cup stadium.orld Cup 

The Brazilian state of Amazonas is one of the most awe-inspiring places on the face of the Earth. Home to an incredible array of plant and animal life it is undoubtedly one of the world’s most well-known natural wonders. Yet outside of South America, it seems few people are aware that in the depths of the jungle, there is a large city now home to over two million people. Even less celebrated is the fact that each year it holds what locals claim to be the largest football tournament in the world.

Manaus is a city of contradictions. It’s a functional modern concrete metropolis yet leave the suburbs behind and you are engulfed by the vastness of the rainforest. In Manaus people go about their daily lives as they would in any big city in the world yet a few miles down the Rio Negro there are jungle tribes whose lives have changed little in centuries. The climate is stiflingly hot and humid all year round and it is well over a day’s travel by road to any other city. Yet despite the unlikely isolated location, people have been flocking to Manaus for decades and it continues to be one of the fastest growing and most economically thriving places in Brazil.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that for all its natural surroundings there is barely an open grassy space to be found for a game of football. It was this problem that sparked local resident Messias Sampaio to come up with the idea for what has grown to become a Manaus institution. Migration en-masse to the city really kicked into gear in the late 1960’s when the small and declining town was made a free trade-zone. Suddenly new factories, roads and accommodation blocks were popping up all over the place but parks and leisure facilities for the dramatically increasing population did not follow. In 1973 Sampaio was challenged by his employers (a local communications company) to come up with an event that would capture the public imagination. He made the ultimately very wise decision to organise a football tournament for Manaus’s sports starved population.

He named it Peladão which can’t easily be translated into English but could perhaps be summed up as ‘the big kickabout’. Bland derelict slabs of concrete were converted into pitches, goals were formed using any means necessary and football began to flourish. The tournament followed the usual rules of 11-a-side football with a few alterations such as the removal of throw-ins in favour of kick-ins and the absence of the off-side rule. It rapidly grew into a significant event on the calendar of a new city desperately searching for its own identity.

The all-inclusive nature of the tournament was and still is its biggest asset. Only professional footballers and convicted criminals are barred from taking to the field and throughout its history, hundreds of thousands of people have taken part with players having come from all kinds of different social backgrounds. Teams mostly represent the neighbourhoods of Manaus but there are plenty of exceptions. Rock bands, evangelical Christians and even a team consisting solely of overweight people have helped ensure the tournament stays true to its amateur roots.

Nowadays over 20,000 participate each year and although it is difficult to verify claims that it is the largest, Peladão is clearly one of the biggest football competitions on the planet.  In 2010 a record 1,211 teams took part, most of whom had shorter names than eventual winners União da Ilha da Manaus Moderna. During that particular year there were almost 9,000 goals and an astounding 710 red cards. Last year, in the 40th edition ofPeladão a team by the name of Martins Vical won the crown after coming through a group phase followed by a rather lengthy knock-out format.

While the basic premise of the event is simple enough, this is anything but an average football competition. A quick search for Peladão online and you are likely to come across streakers, scantily dressed young women and occasionally football players. The former can be explained by the slightly unusual name (pelado can be translated as ‘naked’) but the girls on the other hand are a central figure to this unique event. Alongside each tournament, there is a beauty pageant with each football team sending a queen to represent them. This may seem like an unusual concept and one that has little relevance to football but it is far more than a mere sideshow. Victorious queens can actually get their teams reinstated in the tournament. In 1998 Arsenal, one of many teams who mimic the names of European clubs, were knocked out in the group phases of the football competition. However they were granted a reprieve thanks to their beautiful queen and subsequently went onto to become Peladão champions.

In truth the format is extraordinarily complex but current co-ordinator Arnaldo Santos, a local sports commentator and his team do a fine job of running the event. In addition to the Queen contest, there is also an ever expanding upstate competition where teams from jungle villages often have to travel for days to compete against each other with the eventual winners granted a place in the latter stages of the main Peladão. In recent years a separate female football tournament has also been formed.

To add to the confusion there is also a referee’s competition. This came about because during the early years, violent attacks against referees were commonplace which unsurprisingly led to a shortage of budding officials. The solution was to make each team provide a set of match officials to officiate over other Peladão matches. The best performing ones also have the opportunity to earn their teams a route back into the competition should they be knocked out in the groups. This has helped to raise general refereeing standards as well as reduce incidents of violence.

All inclusive and totally amateur it may be but this event is anything but a joke. In fact such is the dire state of professional football in Manaus that Peladão is just about all football fans have to get excited about. There is an abundance of professional clubs in the city but few can afford to pay their players much above the minimum wage and none of the teams feature in the three main national divisions. Instead the enormous Amazonas state (the largest in Brazil) has to make do with just one entry into the 40 team Serie D each year which is effectively a cup competition with the final four sides promoted into Serie C and the full Brazilian national league pyramid.

The annual State Championship is the only time the teams really get the chance to compete for silverware but the standard is low, public interest isn’t huge and it only takes up a couple of months each year. For any talented young footballer in the Amazon region it is Peladão that represents the best chance to make a name for themselves.

In fact it is not uncommon for players to turn down professional contracts in order to retain their eligibility for the event. Although nobody is officially compensated for playing in the tournament, various types of deals are struck by sides looking to sign the better players. The bigger teams are sponsored, often merely by a local bar or restaurant and talented players may be offered jobs in exchange for them turning out for their teams. Even more furious is the race to find a queen as the heats of the beauty pageant are televised while the early stages of the football event take place in front of just a handful of people on pitches were stones and glass are more likely to be found than anything resembling a blade of grass.

The road to the glamour cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo is long and arduous for any budding footballer in the Amazon but occasionally dreams do come true. Peladão’s biggest success story is probably França who made it all the way from the backstreets of Manaus to the national team and scored in the 1-1 draw with England in a 2000 friendly on the hallowed turf of the soon to be demolished Wembley Stadium. Years earlier in his early teens he caught the eye in Peladão and was quickly snapped up by Nacional Futebol Clube, the most successful of the Manaus clubs with 40 state titles to their name. Although he ultimately had a fairly modest career, he remains an inspiration for youngsters in this isolated region of a football mad nation.

Manaus is about to become a little less isolated though it would seem. In a little under six months, the eyes of the world will be on it when what most people (outside of the city) consider to be the biggest football competition in the world comes to town. Peladão was a large factor in the decision to bring the World Cup to the Amazon in the first place as it clearly displayed the enormous appetite for football that exists in the region. There is excitement that World Cup action will take place in Manaus, with two tasty encounters in the form of England v Italy and USA v Portugal. However the widespread public anger at the cost of the whole event that has swept through Brazil is perhaps best summed up here.

The stark reality is just four World Cup fixtures will take place at the yet to be completed 550 million-real Arena da Amazônia before it becomes home to what Europeans might refer to as non-league football. The deaths of two workers involved in the construction of the stadium have added a tragic human cost to a project that will cater for crowds that will be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands once the World Cup is over.

The long and expensive journey here from the South-East of Brazil where most of the matches will take place is likely to affect how many fans make the trip up to Manaus in June. The local economy is therefore unlikely to see much benefit and while fans are sure to get a warm welcome there are several serious questions that have yet to be answered properly about the legacy of the event. The cost is certainly difficult to justify for anyone who has witnessed a game in the early stages of Peladão and the dilapidated state of the limited number of public sports facilities there are here.

Maybe one day a club from Manaus will make it up through the divisions to compete alongside the powerful Southern clubs. It is after-all Brazil’s seventh largest city and football is a passion here as it is in any other region of the country, perhaps even more-so. The problem is that almost everyone is a migrant or a descendant of those who moved from other parts of the country in the late 20th Century. While they may have left their old homes behind, footballing loyalties tended to come with them and the likes of Flamengo and Corinthians remain the best supported teams in town. The new stadium may host a limited number of concerts or cultural events but generations may need to pass before incoming tenants Nacional or Atletico Rio Negro are able to make the Arena da Amazônia anything more than an expensive white elephant.

Once the glitz and glamour of FIFA’s showpiece tournament departs at least the people of Manaus will still have their own ‘World Cup Finals’ to look forward to each year. A chance to leave mundane lives behind and potentially become a hero for the day. In truth FIFA could probably learn quite a lot from Arnaldo Santos and the Manaus residents who put long hours of effort into co-ordinating the event. For all the ridiculous quirks, it is an extremely well organised affair and undoubtedly has a positive social impact.

In Brazil they say every boy grows up wanting to be a footballer and every young girl dreams of one day being beautiful and glamorous. Peladão somehow manages to combine the two and gives everyone their shot at stardom. Unquestionably the magic of the event will live long after the city’s brief moment in the global spotlight has passed.

By Mark Sochon

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona