This feature appears in the new issue of Howler, an independent magazine about soccer produced in the United States. You can order a copy here.
We'd been flying for at least an hour over unbroken wilderness, just trees and water, when Manaus appeared as if etched from the jungle. Where the city stopped, the forest began. Coiled around the southern half of Manaus was the Rio Negro, a vast anaconda of black liquid that fed into the Amazon a few miles away. The river glinted in the sun as we circled overhead. Tankers chugged slowly upstream. On a cemetery hill high above the water, tombstones were scattered like broken teeth.
I turned to my traveling companion, a journalist who'd lived in the Amazon for two years as a Mormon missionary. He hadn't shaved in days and with his dirty blond hair looked like a Hamburg sailor who'd stumbled up from the docks for an extra ration of grog. On his mission, the locals had called him Alemão. German. It didn't matter how much he protested that he was American. In Brazil, he was Alemão.
And Alemão knew better than anyone what might lie in store for us here. But he said nothing and stared at the seat in front of him. We'd heard dire things about Manaus before arriving in late June for the USA vs. Portugal match. We'd heard, for instance, about a fearsome creature called the candiru that lives in the Rio Negro. A bloodsucking catfish about the size of a toothpick, the candiru can swim up a man's penis and lodge its barbs in his urethra, at which point the tiny monster proceeds to rip and maul. So ravenous is the fish, according to jungle lore, that it can leap from the water like an evil salmon and ascend a stream of urine to get at its prey.
"Many victims reportedly die from shock," the New York Daily News stated in a pre–World Cup candiru alert. "The only treatment is said to be potentially fatal surgery."
We'd had other warnings, too. In Natal, a cabdriver delivered a cryptic message: "In Natal, you can wear flip-flops. In Manaus, no." What he meant is that you needed proper footwear to flee or kick desperately at whatever cruel fate awaited you there. I'd heard about the heat, malaria, yellow fever. I knew about the shockingly high murder rate. The city of nearly two million people was said to be a crime-ridden industrial park, where multinationals made poor Indians stand on assembly lines and boil fat for soap. Nobody had anything kind to say about Manaus. It was the parasitic vampire fish lodged up the nation's prick. When I told a worldly Paulista about my plan to visit, he simply shook his head. "Why would you do that?" he said. "That's the worst place in Brazil."
Certainly, it was the worst place to build a World Cup stadium, according to every Brazilian I'd spoken to. Every media expert said the same. Comedian John Oliver likened Manaus's new stadium to the "world's most expensive bird toilet," and if you considered yourself an enlightened fan, you had little choice but to agree that the Arena da Amazônia, a 40,549-seat stadium that cost around $270 million and claimed the lives of three construction workers, was a very bad idea.
Manaus had three or four "pro" teams that could use the stadium after the Cup, but they were minor-league outfits with few fans, and it wasn't like Bruce Springsteen was going to play the Amazon anytime soon. Some economist had apparently run the numbers and decided that the most rational post-Cup use for the building would be to blow it up like an old Vegas casino. My hope was that the locals would just let the jungle turn it into a vinecovered folly over which archaeologists might puzzle hundreds of years from now.
And so, to recap, the city was vile, the stadium was useless, don't pee in the Amazon. Before I arrived, my editor and I discussed Manaus's sordid reputation. Was it real? How much trouble might a visiting soccer fan come to here? My mission became clear: probe the dark soul of this jungle metropolis and, hopefully, gain some insight into why the World Cup was being staged here at all. I had 72 hours.
The best pound-for-pound fighter in the world is from Manaus. His name is José Aldo, and he has a long scar that runs down his left cheek, the result of getting pushed into a barbecue pit as a boy. Aldo wanted to be a professional soccer player when he was young, but he kept getting beaten down in the streets. So he turned to martial arts and decided to become a champion. He now holds the UFC featherweight belt. One dream replaced another. That tends to happen in Manaus. The city forces a recalibration of reference points. Even for Brazilians, coming here is like visiting a foreign country, and the Manauense know it.
"We're so far from everything, isolated, and [the World Cup] is all brand-new to us, to the people there," Aldo told Vice as the tournament started. "Now we're in the spotlight, so it doesn't matter to them how much was spent on building the arena. People are pumped!"
Our cabbie from the airport was pumped. He gushed about how the stadium would be great for the city. The clerk at the Lider Hotel was pumped. People on the street were pumped. This was at odds with what I'd encountered in Rio and São Paulo, where Brazilians were either apathetic or despairing about the World Cup, which symbolized to many the corruption of the country's ruling class. My reference points began to dissolve.
The only person we encountered who wasn't pumped was an old man selling books on the street near our hotel. On a wall behind his wares he'd created a crude shrine to O Seleção, the Brazilian national side, by taping newspaper photos of teams from years past. I spotted Garrincha, Zito, and Mário Zagallo on the wall. One photo showed the 1970 World Cup champions, the best team in history, with Pelé, Gérson, Jairzinho, Rivellino, Tostão, and more attacking flair than any side before or since. Sócrates, Zico, Romário, Bebeto, Cafu, Dunga, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, they were all here, a yellow-and-blue legacy of superstars that no country could ever hope to match. But the line narrowed as the photos grew more recent. By 2014, Neymar alone more or less carried the banner for Brazilian soccer. Next to him were political articles about corruption, including one with Brazil's current president, Dilma Rousseff, huddling with the former president Lula above whom the bookseller had scrawled "the face of a punk" in Portuguese.
Alemão had taken to posing a leading question to locals: "Is Brazil going to win the World Cup?" For the most part, he received enthusiastic replies. A few people expressed concern about the team's lack of talent, its workmanlike style of play. But the bookseller looked Alemão dead in the eye and uttered a blasphemy I heard only this once on my trip:
"I hope we lose."
"Let's get out of here," I said to Alemão, "before we get teargassed again."
By the time we reached the historic city center that evening, the air was hot and thick, and we were a couple chopps in. ("Chopp" being the Brazilian term for a small draft pilsner.) Brazilian beer, by and large, is terrible. A company named Ambev makes most of the major brands here—Brahma, Antarctica, Bohemia, Skol—and uses corn as an adjunct to barley malt in the brewing process, which produces a sweet aftertaste. In São Paulo, I'd had a fine IPA from a craft brewery called Cervejaria Colorado, but that was hard to find, and here we were drinking for effect.
Near the main square locals in tank tops and shorts were getting tuned up on street caipirinhas they could customize with flavors like passion fruit and mango. I sampled a few of these and wandered over to a man hawking cruises up the river.
"How much for a half-day trip for two people?" I asked. "Six hundred and fifty reais," he said. I shrugged and walked away. Almost U.S. $300. The man called after me: "That's the German price. I'll give you the special American price, 500 reais!"
I ignored him and ducked into the office of a different tour operator, where I approached a woman at the desk. "Some crook out there is trying to sell me a half-day trip for two people for 400 reais," I told her. "How about you?" She wearily opened a booklet with photos to show me what her tour included, the same Potemkin hooey as every tour: a swim with pink river dolphins, a stop at an Indian village, and fishing for piranha. The dolphins looked dumb with trauma after being rubbed down by so many sunscreen-slathered foreign hands, and who knew what treachery those Indians had been conscripted for in exchange for letting outsiders gawk at them. The same cast of charlatans was probably feeding kickbacks to 90 percent of the tour operators. They might even have a movable set, one you could break down fast and ferry to different locations to satisfy any number of swindlers.
"This is my mother's village," the woman said, pointing to a photo of some huts.
"I don't care about any of that," I told her. "What I need is a fast boat with a powerful engine. I want to go upriver as far as possible in one day, really get into the jungle. Understand?"
"That's not possible here," she said.
"Fine. I'll just go down to the port. Know anyone who'd want the job?"
She paused, then scribbled a name and directions on a piece of paper, slipping it to me before the other customers could see. I stood to leave. "You should come with me," I said quietly.
"Believe me," she said. "I wish I could."
In the square, a big-screen TV had been set up, and people sat in rows of plastic chairs watching the late game between Honduras and Ecuador. Few cities in Brazil could boast a colonial plaza like the Praça São Sebastião. In the late 1800s, Manaus was one of the wealthiest cities in the Americas, the "Paris of the Tropics," with grand architecture commissioned by rubber barons who enslaved and slaughtered the indigenous population to get rich off a natural resource that grew only in the Amazon. The barons made Donald Trump look like a conservative spender. One is said to have slaked the thirst of his horses with French champagne. But after an enterprising Englishman smuggled rubber tree seeds out of the country, the boom times came to a crashing halt, and Manaus decayed into what it is today—a rainforest curiosity and, to many Brazilians, few of whom have actually been here, a source of mythical apprehension.
The jewel of the city remained the Teatro Amazonas, a pink neoclassical opera house that opened in 1896 and once attracted French, Italian, and Portuguese opera companies. Made from materials shipped across the Atlantic—Glasgow steel, Carrara marble, 36,000 vitrified ceramic tiles from Alsace that formed a dome in the colors of the Brazilian flag—the opera house was a beautiful vestige of Manaus's mercantile era and a monument to greed and death. After the crash, it sat in disrepair for 90 years until being restored. I could think of only one other building like it hereabouts: the Arena da Amazônia, built, in part, from 7,000 tons of steel shipped in from Portugal and fated for its own desuetude. Even the price tags were similar: in today's dollars, the Teatro had cost around $260 million to build.
Inside, we found a curious, atavistic scene. Drunk Americans in Clint Dempsey jerseys had packed into the elegant three-floor opera house, along with some betterdressed locals, for a free concert by Cuca Roseta, a fado singer from Portugal. Fado is lovely, dolorous music, dark and sad, the Portuguese blues, and Roseta, who changed between sets from a green dress to a red one to show her support for the Portuguese team that would soon face the United States here, transfixed the audience. If not for the soccer jerseys, the concert felt like it could have taken place a century ago.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Alemão had dozed off in his seat. I'd warned him the World Cup would be a brutal slog, especially for those of us working the tournament. After two Cups, I'd built up some resistance. Even so, Brazil had been punishing. We'd been stuck in floods and traffic jams. The night before, in Natal, we'd watched a belligerent Brazilian and his friends terrorize a busload of bewildered Japanese with screams of "Sushi! Kamikaze! Edamame!" and any other Japanese words they could think of. In São Paulo, at a World Cup protest, riot police had shot tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades at us. In Natal, we'd had another run-in with the cops. Ugly stuff. Alemão had begun to falter.
After the concert, a crowd gathered in the square outside the Bar do Armando, which tourist literature claimed was a "bohemian hot spot" frequented by writers and artists. Not tonight. American fans were getting blitzed on corn beer and doing mad jigs to guitar tunes. I observed one American grinding on a young Brazilian girl in a tight dress who had braces on her teeth. Her mother was standing nearby and chided the American good-naturedly. This crowd could only have been better than the English, who'd been here when the tournament began. Several residents told me they were appalled at what they'd seen—Brits drinking to the point of hospitalization, puking in the streets, and fighting one another.
At some point, I lost Alemão in the mob. He texted me that he was going back to the hotel. I missed the text. Too much corn beer. Where was our hotel anyway? Start walking. Through the old quarter in the night, everything quiet, trust the instincts, shoes laced tight. A man in a doorway doing drugs. Do you know you can't rent a goddamn hammock in this town for under $100 a night? Do you know the best fighter in the world is from Manaus? Keep moving. Oh look, transgender hookers. So many, strutting in thigh-high leather stiletto boots, convincing but for the jawlines. Maybe they're transsexuals. Or transvestites. Is "transvestite" still a term? What if they're just cross-dressers? Does that mean they haven't had surgery? Do I still call them transgender? Fuck it. Any of you know the Lider Hotel? Kinda dingy place, a 1950s-era cigarette vending machine by the elevator, display case in the lobby for the hotel's first cell phone, size of a brick?
Back in the room, Alemão was awake and full of remorse: "I shouldn't have left you. You don't know the language. You didn't know how to get back. Anything could have happened."
"Don't worry," I said, explaining that I'd gotten directions from a drug addict and men who looked like women and wanted to sell their bodies to me. "Very friendly people. I like this town."
When I woke up on Saturday, Alemão had gone to find a church. It was a Catholic church. I don't know why he'd gone. I didn't want to know. Instead, I went up to the roof and did push-ups in the sun until I felt like vomiting. I'd been taking chloroquine malaria pills for days and waiting for the hallucinations to come on. But I felt only creeping nausea.
The wharf was a short walk from the Lider, and once Alemão returned, we headed down there to look for a boat. We passed men selling saws and bolts and engine parts. The instructions I'd received the previous night proved indecipherable by day. I'd hoped to commandeer a private launch, but we'd lost crucial hours and had to adjust. One captain wanted R300 for the same standard tour. Another brigand told us he was about to cast off with four passengers and had two seats left for R250, the "Brazilian price." We fished around in our pockets but could only come up with R200. "Okay, okay," he said, waving us aboard.
The moment we stepped onto his flat-bottomed wreck, I knew we'd made a terrible mistake. The Franciely's 40-horsepower motor barely worked, and as we puttered into the river, I saw that the wires connecting the throttle to the motor were exposed and jury-rigged together in a way that looked like it could short at any second. Every other boat on the river was flying past us. One of Manaus's principal attractions is the "meeting of the waters," where the Rio Negro, which has an inky color from vegetation that rots in the water, merges with the sandy-colored Rio Solimões (the name of the Amazon River this far west). Like oil and vinegar, the two waterways come together but refuse to mix for some distance, creating a colorful spectacle. The Franciely broke down before we could get there. We'd been on the water for 20 minutes.
As I watched a lone sandal sweep past us in the current, a fat woman from Fortaleza rumbled to life and began cursing the captain, who was fiddling with the engine wires. Under one meaty arm, she had pinioned a terrified Maltese dog, like a purse with a heartbeat. The more she yelled about the meeting of the waters, the tighter she squeezed the dog, which wore a pink bow and a look of permanent subjugation. The animal's spirit had broken long ago. Eventually, the captain got the motor working, and Manaus vanished behind us. We passed some shacks on stilts, half-submerged telephone poles, and a floating church, only to stop at a tourist-laden restaurant built on the water with a piranha fishing hole, around which a group of Americans were failing to catch piranha. This was exactly what I'd hoped to avoid. "We've been had," I said to Alemão. "I refuse to eat here." Alemão was already moving toward the buffet. "I knew it would be this way," he grunted. "Can you loan me some money?"
After lunch, we motored down narrow tributaries deeper into the forest, where we saw exotic birds in the trees and jungle hens hopping on lily pads the size of life rafts. We put in at another small settlement, where Indian women sold jewelry made from açaí berries and kids swam in the river. I watched a mother load her two small children into a dugout canoe and disappear into the jungle.
I had been looking for the Beast, hoping to find it leering at me from the foliage. We gringos think of the jungle this way. Wander too far off the beaten path and you'll find a pig skull mounted on a spear or a curare-tipped arrow embedded in your neck. That, or a primordial madness might seize you and render you savage. In reality, this mind-set is more dangerous than anything in the jungle itself. For centuries, the Amazon and its inhabitants have been victimized by outsiders looking to "tame" them, and you had to feel for people whose ancestors lived under the real threat of having their genitals shot off for sport by rubber traders.
When we pulled into a small opening in the forest, several Indians in canoes, who had clearly been waiting for this opportunity, paddled up to the Franciely and began thrusting animals over the side. Coins for photos, that was the deal. Over one side came two baby caimans whose mouths were tied shut. They looked drugged and didn't move as they were passed around the boat. Over the other side, jammed in my face, came a tree sloth, also seemingly drugged. The sloth's eyes were like buttons on a doll. They didn't blink. They couldn't focus.
Like the Maltese, the sloth had been permanently subdued, and I knew at once where it would wind up. I almost couldn't bear to look. The captain had put the boat in reverse to keep it stationary in the current, and the engine was belching thick clouds of smoke. When I turned around, the Fortaleza woman had cast down the Maltese and grabbed the sloth under its arms. As engine smoke enveloped them both, she raised the creature triumphantly, her own hairy Jules Rimet Trophy. Through the billowing smoke, the sloth's dead eyes stared out at me. The stench of burning fuel filled my lungs. There was no need to go into the jungle to find the Beast. The Beast was right here. We had brought it with us.
Manaus wasn't supposed to be host city for the World Cup. FIFA initially expected to have eight venues, and the "City of the Forest" wasn't among them. But then Ricardo Teixeira stepped in. He was the head of the Brazilian Football Confederation who had once sat on FIFA's executive committee and, along with his father-in-law, João Havelange, allegedly taken $41 million in bribes tied to World Cup marketing rights. Teixeira went to work on Sepp Blatter, and the number of host cities soon expanded to 12, with Manaus beating out Rio Branco and Belém for one of the slots.
In no little way, then, Teixeira and FIFA were responsible for bringing me (and thousands of others) on a costly 3,400-mile dogleg. There was no other way I'd have come to Manaus. I guess it made sense in the broader scheme. The World Cup is a glossy, highly produced spectacle best suited for cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but the tournament, unlike the Olympics, has a tradition of frequenting farther-flung, less desirable destinations. Like Detroit.
It pained me to admit it, but I found FIFA's approach admirable. In South Africa, I'd been to Rustenburg, a dusty mining town I didn't even know existed before my trip. Ecstatic locals streamed down to the stadium to mingle with fans. (I'm still in touch with a guy I met there.) In 2006, I went to Dortmund, another bleak mining town, to watch Jurgen Klinsmann's Germany side beat Poland 1–0 on an Oliver Neuville goal in the 91st minute. The Germans still talk about that game, which led to a collective expression of national pride in a country that has tended to shy away from public displays of that kind. FIFA created those experiences, no matter what we might think about how the suits in Zurich conduct business.
I still wasn't sure, though, what my lasting impression of Manaus would be. The people here were exuberant, even joyous. Pumped! That enthusiasm was infectious. Hosting the World Cup was a matter of civic pride to them. But there was, too, an undeniable darkness that I couldn't put my finger on. After getting off the Franciely, I'd loitered by the docks watching men play a popular local card game called pif paf, a combination of rummy and poker. The men were drinking steadily. Others had fallen to the ground and lay belly up as pedestrians stepped around them. For all I knew, they were junkies, not gamblers, although it was hard to tell. Cutthroats tend to congregate by ports, and the locals had told me that all species of thief and scum prowled this area at night. I would have to return.
I'd arranged to meet up with a Howler intern on Saturday night. He'd e-mailed me a week earlier to say that he was "really excited for the opportunity," which made me wonder what my editor had told him. All I knew was his name, Patterson, and that he'd been in Manaus for a few days. When I arrived, I'd sent him a message asking if he'd found any good spots in town. His tone had changed completely: "I'm try not to darken your thoughts haha [sic]." Then he recommended a place with "5 foot tall paper mache or plaster puppets." Sweet suffering Jesus. Had Manaus gotten to him?
I found Patterson in the square wearing hiking boots and sweating heavily. He was a big fellow, a rugby player at Georgetown, and he glistened like he'd come off a log flume. "You just sweat the beer right out," he panted. It was true. Manaus is so humid that tying your shoes can necessitate a change of shirt. The weather was the reason that, before the World Cup draw, England manager Roy Hodgson had called Manaus a "place to avoid." The mayor of Manaus retorted by saying that he hoped his city would "get a better team" out of the draw than England. Both would be disappointed. And it would be muggy all right. Patterson and his cousin had walked over from a hostel that slept 10 men to a room, and I could only imagine the intolerable funk building up in that hellhole. My plan was to take Patterson down to the port to gamble with junkies, then force him to swim out to the Maestra Mediterraneo, a big container ship anchored a couple hundred feet offshore. I'd scouted the ship on my cruise and it appeared to have no real security. If Patterson could get up the anchor chain, he could steal anything he wanted. The current was very strong, but I had a strange, unfounded confidence in him. What I learned next, however, took me aback: Patterson and I had, improbably, gone to the same small high school in Washington, D.C., one that graduates only about 75 students a year. We'd even had the same teachers. Goddamnit, I thought, what were the chances? There was no way I could let him come to harm now.
So we went to the Bar do Armando for corn beer. The crowd was bigger than before. Americans were everywhere, and hundreds of Brazilians had turned out. They all wanted to talk to us. Patterson became ungovernable and ran off with a local girl. I saw him reeling through the mob later, laughing and sweating. I wondered if they'd wind up in a love hotel. Alemão and I had seen the love hotels everywhere. They had names like Magic Palace, L'Amour, and Sinless. They rented rooms by the hour, and we'd heard lurid stories about mantelpieces lined with dildos, room service menus filled with sex toys, and odd Brazilian copulation rituals. Apparently, the rooms have a sort of glory hole-type aperture that is accessed behind a sliding panel after a guest places a room service order. When the item is ready—say, a tube of lube—a gloved human hand will emerge from the hole with it. My grip on reality was slipping, and the last thing I needed on the brain was the possibility that holes like that existed in walls all over Brazil, through which hands wagged dildos and ball gags at people. Maybe the Chloroquine was finally getting to me. The pills had severe side effects like paranoia and psychosis and people on the medication had been known to lunge for weapons and attack anything in front of them.
There is a tendency at the World Cup to push things too far, especially after weeks in the company of fanatics dressed in Halloween costumes. You could tumble over the edge without realizing it. Alemão, for instance, had cracked and gone back to the hotel again. I'd been worried about him ever since cops with M16s stopped him one night in our rental car at a drunk-driving checkpoint in Natal. The prospect of him going to jail was very real, but he'd barely reacted. He'd either turned fatalistic or was too exhausted to care. By the time we got to Manaus, he was shutting down. We ate an entire breakfast at the Lider sitting across from each other and he never said a word, just stared into his phone, then stood up and walked away. He'd been doing that on the street, too, peeling off without warning.
Now I had the Jimmy Legs. The rest of the night was a blur. Fragments of memory... strangers shouting... clothes drenched in sweat, no way to get clean... the sloth's dead eyes staring at me through smoke... disembodied hands reaching for me from walls... Patterson's words ringing in my head: " I'm try not to darken your thoughts haha." Hahahahahahaha....
The next memory I have is of spilling out of a cab on Sunday afternoon with Alemão and trudging through blazing heat to the press entrance of the Arena da Amazônia. A woman in a carnival outfit danced by herself in front of a roadside bar, and a young girl begged me for a ticket so she could watch Cristiano Ronaldo.
When we got to our seats, the sun was going down and moths were coming out of the jungle. They were attracted to the stadium lights, and I found a dead one the size of a sparrow in my seat. Germans had designed the arena to look like an Indian woven fruit basket, and more than any other World Cup stadium in Brazil, it had become a symbol of what was wrong with the tournament. Construction had gone over budget. Sixty-three out of sixty-four health and safety codes had been broken, according to Brazil's Ministry of Labor and Employment. Workers had died. And, of course, the building was projected to become an unusable white elephant. While it was fashionable to hate the arena, few experts had bothered to speak to anyone in Manaus, preferring to colonize by opinion. But people here knew what the arena cost. Those I spoke with were happy to have it.
Moths fluttered over the field as the game kicked off. Minutes later, Portugal's Nani scored a shamefully easy goal after Geoff Cameron flubbed a clearance. But the U.S. calmed down and began to attack. On defense, the plan was to rough up Cristiano Ronaldo, and whenever he touched the ball, Americans would cut him down. Ronaldo was soon complaining more than he was playing.
In the second half, the U.S. controlled more possession and began creating good chances. The payoff came on a curving, crackling goal from Jermaine Jones from outside the box. Jones had been the best American player in Brazil, and he gave a jubilant little hop after he scored. The Americans were coming hard now, flying down the wings, and 17 minutes later, they scored again off a great, if lucky, piece of combination play: Jones zipped a through ball to DeAndre Yedlin, who knocked in a low cross that deflected to Michael Bradley, who had a shot deflected to Graham Zusi, who, with utter sangfroid, dinked an unselfish chip over a defender to Clint Dempsey, who'd been hawking around the cage and now lunged forward to knock the ball into the goal with his stomach, touching off pandemonium.
Next to me, a guttural howl went up. It was a primal roar filled with pain, one that seemed to stretch forever, growing louder and louder and losing shape as waves of frustration and rage were unleashed and transmuted. "Yeeaaoooohhhrhrrrrrrghghghg!!!" Never in my life had I heard anything like it, and when I looked over, I saw that it was coming from Alemão. In the press section, reporters are supposed to maintain a farce of objectivity, but Alemão had risen to his feet to scream for America, his face a mask of furious joy. He was screaming for all of us. God bless him. Just when I thought he was done for, Clint Dempsey brought him back.
Nothing that happened after this could dampen my spirits. It didn't matter that Ronaldo, in his sole effective action of the night, pinged an impossible cross to Silvestre Varela, who headed in a goal in the last second of the game—the actual last second—to tie it up. It didn't matter that fans stood around in disbelief long after the final whistle. It didn't matter that the U.S. was still in a good spot to advance to the next round. None of it mattered. A different kind of closure was at hand.
In the Amazon, there is a big, beautiful fish, all torpedo lines and scales, an apex predator that can grow to hundreds of pounds. The pirarucu, they call it in Manaus. Arapaima in other parts of the jungle. The pirarucu is remarkable because it has not only gills but also a swim bladder that works like a lung and allows it to survive in low-oxygen waters. Every few minutes, though, the fish must surface for air, which makes it easy to kill. The only thing that hunts the pirarucu is man. The pirarucu comes up for air, a harpoon descends with death.
I'd watched these fish in a tank in the Indian village, going after bait that tourists lowered on poles. As the bait descended, the pirarucu bunched together, staring upward. When the bait got close enough, they exploded from the water. They were powerful beasts, and seeing them lurk like that in a group beneath the surface, waiting to attack, gave me fear. I resented them for making me feel weak.
So when I saw pirarucu on a menu, grilled, I ordered it. This was my way of trying to regain control of a volatile situation. I would eat my fear. But I immediately hated what I'd done. It was petty and destructive, even cruel. Later, I learned something shocking: the pirarucu is nearly extinct. Humans have speared the fish to the point of extermination in most parts of the Amazon. I was no better than that woman on the boat, probably worse. No better than any of the soccer drunks. No better, even, than my misery of a traveling companion. The Beast was me. It was all of us. We were interlopers here, all of us, a big World Cup Beast bent on exorcising spirits in what one soccer writer, yet another outsider, had deemed "the seediest town in Brazil."
Alemão flew out of Manaus in the middle of the night, owing me hundreds of dollars and, I suspected, blaming me for many hardships endured. I'd dragged him into this mayhem, after all. But he'd been in a better mood after the game and had perked up considerably when we happened upon a transsexual calypso party where people moshed merrily in the street. We walked down to the port and found it deserted. No thieves. No scum. A couple having sex in a crawl space between two stands shuttered for the night.
We'd passed through the maw of Manaus and emerged whole, more or less. But what did that mean? The city was so divergent from the rest of Brazil. You couldn't deny its weirdness. Manaus had more history than most venues. It had the jungle. And its residents, more welcoming than any others we'd met, had a sunnier attitude when it came to the World Cup. Aside from the bookseller from our first day, we'd encountered none of the general malaise we found elsewhere.
"Cynicism didn't exist in Manaus," Alemão declared later. He reminded me how we'd seen a father and his daughter tenderly folding their Flamengo flag after the Portugal game. We'd seen couples in Brazil jerseys dancing in alleyways. "They can just enjoy soccer because it's soccer. And they'll turn out, like the whole city, to the FIFA fan fest, and sit in the town square and watch soccer, and sit with us in the opera house, just because."
It was easy to be cynical when running experiments, but I could see now how much people here wanted the World Cup, how much they wanted to challenge stereotypes. So many outside views had been imposed on them for so long. They knew about their reputation. "What do you think of Manaus?" they'd ask in a rising voice, expecting the worst.
It was a question I heard the next morning on my way out of town. I'd stopped for a tour at the Eduardo Ribeiro House Museum, the former home of a polymath governor of Amazonas who designed the dome of the opera house. Ribeiro, the son of a slave, vaulted himself to the top political post in the region before he was 30, a remarkable accomplishment, especially during the rubber boom. At 38, he was found dead in a chair in his home, a belt and a mosquito net around his neck. Ribeiro suffered from depression, and suicide seemed likely. But rumors circulated that his political enemies poisoned him and planted his body in the chair. The mystery has never been solved, according to my young guide, who looked like a Brazilian clone of Patterson.
Here, I thought, was where the cynic would pick apart an earnest poisoning myth that preserved the reputation of a local hero. I felt the same way about what the Arena da Amazônia symbolized, which I believed now was something closer to defiance. Maybe the stadium was a waste of money, but it was no opera house for exploiters. FIFA hadn't wanted to come to a remote jungle outpost. The Manauense pushed for that to happen. They wanted the World Cup here. They wanted the world to see them on their own terms. If the cost was a fancy stadium, even one whose utility was a myth, who was I to say it wasn't worth the price? I was just passing through, thanks to the Cup.
"You think Ribeiro killed himself?" I asked my guide.
"I like to believe he was murdered."
"So do I."
He smiled. "Can I ask you a question?"
"What do you think of Manaus?"
"It's the best place I've been to in Brazil."
Brazilian Patterson looked stunned, then beamed. He almost came in for a hug.
A few hours later, I watched the city and its arena diminish through my plane window. For all the condescending criticism of Manaus by outsiders—both Brazilian and foreign—the fact was that a big stadium now existed where none did before. That was the only real thing. People in Manaus wanted the Cup. They got it. And it had been great. For two weeks, thousands of fans went crazy, and people paid attention to the city, and locals were pumped. Afterward, only a concrete reminder would remain, and around it, boundless and beautiful, the lush and level jungle would stretch far away.
Top photo via Getty; Photos in body via Luke O'Brien