Manaus: Conventional wisdom has it that Manaus is one of the more unusual choices for a World Cup venue, a backwater in the literal sense. It’s true that Manaus isn’t one of the first (or first dozen) names that come to the mind when one thinks of football in Brazil and the logistical issues don’t help. The gateway to the Amazon, Manaus is a four-hour flight from Sao Paulo, inaccessible by road and 1,600km from the sea. Yet if the geography is harsh, history suggests it was a smart pick—though don’t mention that in Belem, it’s an Amazonian rival that has a football team but lost out on the World Cup matches.

The city’s football fan fest, an open house with a giant screen and lots of beer vendors, sits, fittingly, adjacent to the Teatro Amazonas. The opera house, built in 1896, is testament to the city’s penchant for the audacious, and for its long history of assimilating and accommodating outsiders. It was built by the visionary governor Eduardo Ribeiro—a black man who ruled by popular vote for 40 years before he was poisoned—as an investment for the future, with materials almost exclusively imported from Europe. The Carrara marble and glass came from Italy, other equipment from England; though the wood came from next door.

The acoustics are still perfect. The day we visited the 60-piece Manaus Symphony was practising; a deep, rich and clear sound even in the cheapest seats. The design and concept was borrowed from La Scala in Milan, a world away from the tropical, mosquito-infested jungles of the Amazon. But that was typical of Manaus of those days, when it was the centre of the rubber world. The charming wrought-iron marketplace was modelled on Les Halles, the pillars and arches imported from Liverpool.

Nothing was too grand, no idea too unviable, no commodity beyond the reach of the white gold, as rubber was called. Manaus was the first city in South America to have tramcars and the first to have electricity. Walk around downtown and the signs are everywhere; the rubber barons’ grand houses, the schools and palaces, the markets, the parks and vistas—they evoke memories of Panjim and perhaps Lisbon, with touches similar to all colonial cities. The trade brought people from all over the world; the crowded downtown area has Chinese, Muslim, English, German, Jewish and Russian names and signboards. There’s even a Ramsons conglomerate of industries. And all this in, literally, the middle of nowhere.

Then an English trader took 70,000 rubber seeds to Malaysia, convinced the locals there to switch from tea plantations to rubber and the rest is history. Manaus’s economy collapsed as its monopoly disappeared and the costs of trade proved uneconomical; for half a century the town withered away.

In the mid-1960s, the country’s military dictatorship decided to integrate Manaus with the rest of Brazil and offered huge sops and incentives, including a duty-free zone, to industries willing to relocate there. So began the city’s slow rebirth.

Today, Manaus buzzes with activity, and not merely because World Cup 2014 is in town. Staging four matches here has meant upgrading and adding to the city’s infrastructure, including connecting it to the national electricity grid (it was self-sustained for more than a century). The industrial park, which has replaced the port in terms of sheer financial importance, is home to many familiar brands. Our guide Vilmar Strapasson pointed with pride as we passed showroom after showroom in the city. “That Sony—they manufacture here. Those Kawasaki bikes; manufactured here."

Vilmar came from Iguazu 27 years ago to visit his mother and never left. That’s because of Manaus’s other pulling power, the tourist trade. It’s the entry point to the world’s largest, most fascinating untapped region and tourists come in droves from everywhere. Our three-day boat ride had passengers from France, Belgium, Australia and an English girl of Malaysian origin who, realising she was doubly responsible for the town’s decline, decided she would keep her lineage to herself. The tourist season traditionally starts in July so the World Cup has come as a massive boon to Manaus—and it helps that the matches being staged here include England, the US, Portugal and Italy, whose fans have booked rooms in large numbers.

They will watch matches in a lovely new stadium designed in the form of a traditional woven basket, the seats inside painted in hot colours to reflect the variety of fruit the region is famous for. It’s not clear what will happen to the stadium after the last of the matches but, though there is no top-flight football team here, there are other ways to fill a ground. The Scorpions, the German metal group, played in Manaus recently and as more corporates come in so will other acts. The grand old opera house will no doubt look on sagely. It’s seen it all before.

Jayaditya Gupta, executive editor of Espncricinfo and a columnist for Mint, will be writing from South America for the duration of the World Cup.

For more stories from Brazil, go to www.livemint.com/worldcup2014

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