The eyes of international soccer fans are trained on Brazil, the country hosting the World Cup that kicks off Thursday. There is excitement for the month-long tournament played every four years. But in Brazil, there is also unrest.
Disappointed Brazilians are protesting the country’s spending of more than $11 billion on infrastructure upgrades and stadiums to get ready for the tournament, with games spread across 12 cities in a country larger than the continental United States. Another sore spot is the role of soccer’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, which chose Brazil as the host country and will reap most of the profits from the mega event.
Soccer fan and comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, sought to illuminate soccer’s dark side in his June 8 show. One project that epitomizes World Cup waste, he argued, is a new 42,000-seat stadium in a city within the Amazon rainforest that cost the country more than $300 million to build.
The city of Manaus is way, way, way off the beaten path. To emphasize how out of the way it is, Oliver pulled a TV news clip describing how stadium materials were shipped by boat from Portugal across the Atlantic Ocean and up the Amazon River.
"Okay, that does seem like a waste of money, especially when you consider that that stadium is only going to be used for four World Cup games," Oliver said. "There’s also no team in Manaus that can fill it afterwards, at which point it becomes the world’s most expensive bird toilet."
We wanted to explore whether the stadium’s only real purpose is four World Cup games.
FIFA requires eight venues for the tournament’s 64 matches, but Brazil selected 12 host cities. What seemed like an opportunity to share development, tourism and growth has posed logistical and financial problems around the country. Citing unfinished roads, stadiums and work areas, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro admitted "we made a mistake" in choosing a dozen hosts.
Manaus, located in the northwestern Brazilian state of Amazonas, may be the most peculiar choice. The historic city of 2 million attracts business from electronics and oil industries thanks to its status as a free economic zone. Still, it’s mostly accessible by boat and air, nestled near the famous "Meeting of the Waters," where the black Rio Negro and muddy Amazon meet but do not mix.
Getting a World Cup-ready stadium ready in Manaus was an enormous feat, generating attention from the the Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Telegraph, the Los Angeles Times and Canada’s CBC News, to name a few. An existing stadium with just 20,000 seats had to be torn down in order to build a stadium that meets FIFA regulations. Its replacement, the German-designed Arena Amazonia, looks like a giant woven straw basket, the seats inside painted in shades of tropical fruit.
As Oliver said, it will host just four games -- the first on June 14 between England and Italy. The U.S. team will face Portugal there June 22. The other matches are Cameroon vs. Croatia and Honduras vs. Switzerland.
So what’s next after the four World Cup matches?
Manaus is not home to a top-tier Brazilian soccer team that might sustain big crowds when the World Cup is gone. The Miami Herald reported nonspecific plans for the stadium to host guest matches between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo teams.
A local team in the country’s fourth soccer division, Nacional Futebol Clube, plans to play in the stadium when the World Cup ends. But a report from the Telegraph, and others, highlights low attendance figures of up to 1,000 fans for the team’s games.
The Manaus stadium seats 42,000 people.
"We were careful with our wording to say that there is no ‘team in Manaus that can fill it afterwards’ — not to say that no one was going to play in it afterwards," reads a statement from the show’s research team via an HBO spokeswoman. "We knew that there are plans to use the stadium for other purposes, too, and that some people hope the stadium will bring increased popularity to the Nacional team.
"But we felt like we were justified to have a deep skepticism about those claims, especially given the cost just to maintain the facility — and we felt we were on safe ground to word the joke the way we had it."
This stadium is not the only project deemed by some as a "white elephant." Brazilian soccer star-turned-congressman Romário told the New York Times in 2013 that new stadiums in Manaus, Cuiaba and Natal "are absurd."
"There will be a couple games there and then what? Who will go? It is an absolute waste of time and money," he said.
FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fisher stressed that the government owns the stadium, not FIFA, and there are plans to "privatize" it after the World Cup. FIFA’s website says the stadium in Manaus "will continue to attract tourists after the tournament by hosting concerts and cultural events."
The 2016 Olympics will also be in Brazil, but the soccer matches and other Olympic events will take place in the host city of Rio de Janeiro or surrounding cities, a four-hour flight to the south and east from Manaus.
Oliver said Brazil built a $300 million stadium in the Amazon rainforest that "is only going to be used for four World Cup games," and there’s no team "that can fill it afterwards."
His point is accurate. There are hopes and dreams for the stadium’s life when the World Cup is over, and locals hope it spurs more interest in local soccer teams in Manaus and can be used for big-ticket concerts and conferences. But the stadium, based on what we know, largely will sit unused.
We rate Oliver’s claim True.