Wheels Up, Manaus!

wc1I remember the excitement in the New York Family offices when the box arrived from Rio de Janeiro. As we opened the lid, a little samba music played and inside was a Brazuca — the name that was given the official match ball for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

It was inevitable that I’d want to go with my teenage son this time around. He’d played on the fields of glory of the West Side Soccer League since he was 7 — half his life ago — and suffered the deep embarrassment of his father as a coach and then a referee. This was going to be the classic father-son bonding experience, a World Cup in the Americas.

wc2I knew enough about Brazil from traveling there myself for business that I just didn’t want to go through the insanity of Rio or Sao Paolo for the Copa Mondial. In fact, I was in Sao Paolo two weeks ago on the eve of the opening game: It took us nearly three hours from city to airport. Brazil is a wonderful, rich, complex, subtle, compelling country — but its infrastructure is awful.

Anything to do with planes, trains or automobiles is almost certain to end in tears — and more so if it involves the country’s two big cities.

I looked at the map of the country and where the World Cup would be played. Most match venues were bunched in the big cities of the South or on the East Coast. But there in the middle to the North, all by itself was a little speck on the map that identified itself as Manaus. The capital of the Amazonas, a city of 2 million inhabitants perched on the confluence of the Slimoes and Rio Negro, which when they converge pretty much exactly at Manaus, get renamed as one — the Amazon, the world’s longest river.

wc3Now, before New York Family readers take to their emails to point out an error and tell us we’ve forgotten the Nile, we have to refer them to the study of the Humboldt Museum of Heidelberg University conducted but a few short years ago. The survey discovered a new source of the Amazon about 285 kilometers further into the mountains of Peru and a new world record was set.

For the sophisticated New York Family reader (all of you, of course), you’ll recall Klaus Kinski in the Werner Herzog film “Fitzcarraldo.” It is set in Manaus and tells the tale of the wealthy rubber baron of the same name with a deep love of opera, hauling materials and ships over mountains to get the Manaus Opera House built. In fact it was built in reality during the oil booms of the 1890s but is still a strange standout in a place deep in the Amazon jungle.

wc4But there was Manaus, and it looked like you could get there directly from Miami or Panama. It was going to host four games and had built a brand new spectacular stadium for the occasion — Arena da Amazonia. Once the World Cup leaves, it has no first division team to use it and the expectation is that the $300 million is took to build will slowly but surely return to nature and the jungle.

 

The first thing to do on a trip into the Heart of Darkness is to recruit other parents and their kids. And try to put together an A team of complementary skills and attributes. There was Annette from Chicago, the wife of a dear friend of mine who blanked on sport but was blessed with another half born in Germany who knew the statistics of every Bayern Munich game since 1984. WC5She was to boot a weapons and explosives expert, which might come in handy. Plus her two teenage kids. Then there was my pal Ferdinand, a Swiss national with a Mexican wife (you may find this information extraneous until you check the schedules and see who’s playing in the next game in Manaus on Wednesday). Ferdinand is the president for the Americas for an extremely large global logistics company. Let’s just say that, on this trip, we call him “Wheels.”

Starting last October, we all put out names into the great ticket lottery which is run by FIFA for buyers from everywhere in the world for tickets — by venue, by date, by team, and by round. FIFA, for the uninitiated, is the worldwide organization that administers soccer worldwide and owns the World Cup. It is also perhaps one of the most notoriously corrupt organizations in existence. Ask any soccer fan wondering why eight summers from now the World Cup will be held in Quatar…

WC6Fortunately, we won the lottery! Each of us got tickets for June 22 and 25. That’s the relatively easy and cheap part. Tickets — best in house — were $175 each.

Hotels were blocked off by FIFA and flights to Manaus scarce. We booked a berth on COPA, an excellent and to date highly reliable regional airline based in Panama but with perhaps the best regional coverage of any carrier in Central and South America. We left JFK at 10am on the morning of Friday, June 20, landed in Panama City five hours later, then took an Embraer for the Heart of Darkness for 3.5 hours. A little more than scheduled since we had to bank around a spectacular show of rainforest thunderstorm with bright streaks of lightning.

Then there was the hotel. The Holiday Inn’s as good as it gets in Manaus and its restaurant, as all the staff will tell you, is ranked #2 by Tripadvisor in the city. It makes the hotel’s General Manager a Big Cheese on these parts. In fact, I am sitting next to him in the official FIFA bus with my travel companions en route to the stadium as of time of writing. Only US and Portuguese teams missing. The ref is in the front of the bus and a big cadre of journalists covering the Copa Mondial from Kol Yisroel to Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

wc7And finally we made it to the game between the US and Portugal! What a game!

Like a roller coaster. It picked us up, swiveled us around, took us to highs and lows and left us exhausted in the sweltering Manaus heat with no breeze. A full, no-seats-empty stadium of 40,000 — sweating all at once. Would we have loved the match to have been 20 seconds shorter? Sure. But either way, the trip has been one to give a lifetime of memories and great stories for the kids.

Richard Burns is the Chairman of Manhattan Media,  New York Family’s parent company.   

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