(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JOHN LEICESTERAP Sports Writer
All 12 Brazilian cities hosting World Cup games have their claims to fame. Here are three that, for one reason or another, particularly caught our eye:
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SOCCER’S JUNGLE FRONTIER:
When tour guides warn of fish in the river that would like to wriggle into your nose, ears or elsewhere so they can suck your blood, it immediately becomes apparent that you’ve strayed off the beaten track.
Welcome to Manaus. Of all places visited by the World Cup in 84 years of traveling the globe, the Amazon city is one of the most wild and wacky, a new frontier for soccer’s showcase.
Butterflies here are as big as an adult’s hand. Shops stocked with the things one needs for jungle living sell fishhooks the size of coat hooks to catch Amazonian fish as big as cats. Haggle in the market for souvenir piranhas, preserved and mounted, mouths agape to show off those famous teeth. Above the city of 2.2 million people, vultures circle in the thermals.
Manaus is the most remote of Brazil’s World Cup cities. The next nearest venue is Cuiaba, 900 miles due south across the rainforest. The others are at least 1,250 miles distant. Porto Alegre, in the far south, is a 4-hour, 2,000-mile flight.
Jetting over the dense jungle canopy one wonders what bugs, birds, beasts and tribes live beneath. Its enormity and lushness are humbling. In the middle of this green lung, Manaus comes as a shock with its oil refinery, industrial zone and trash-strewn slums. Impressive, too: What determination and ingenuity the city’s Portuguese fathers must have had to venture this far, what hardships they must have endured.
England and Italy will be the first of eight teams to sweat and perhaps wilt in the heat and humidity of the Arena Amazonia, with its lattice roof of diamond panels that look like snake scales and 44,000 seats in the colors of tropical fruits. Also playing here are Cameroon-Croatia, the United States-Portugal and Honduras-Switzerland, which kicks off at 4 p.m. local. The three other matches were moved to 6 p.m., when running around in the heat might be somewhat less crushing. During daylight hours, just standing still is sticky work.
The Centers for Disease Control says malaria is present in Manaus and the surrounding Amazonas state, but evaluates the risk for travelers as low. Mosquitoes are remarkably few, because their larvae don’t survive in the acidic, black waters which give the Rio Negro its name.
Manaus is built along the river’s north bank. Take a boat downriver to admire the ”meeting of waters,” a natural wonder where the river and the River Solimoes come together to form the Amazon. Laden with silt and organic material picked up on their course through the jungle from Peru, the Solimoes’ waters are milk-chocolate brown, colder, denser, faster moving and less acidic. Because of those differences, their waters run side by side, two-tone, for miles before blending.
Manaus has nearly six times more homicides – 600 this year alone – than London, a city four times its size.
”It’s a big city with big city problems,” said Miguel Capobiango Neto, who is overseeing World Cup preparations for Amazonas state. But he said violent crime is mostly on the city limits and policing has been beefed up. The last foreigner killed here, a British woman, died in a boating accident, not from foul play, he said.
The pleasant square in front of the city’s magnificent opera house felt safe enough, with young Amazonians chatting there at dusk. A violinist played for coins. The corner shop sells sweet ices.
Built in 1896, the Teatro Amazonas is an echo of Manaus’ now long-gone rubber boom, when it got wildly wealthy on exports of the precious commodity milked from Amazonian trees. The ”rubber barons” spared no expense on their vanity project, importing from Italy inlaid wood floors, crystal chandeliers and fine pillars of marble.
Other relics of that era are dotted around town: a sewage plant built by the British, an iron bridge, the rails of what was one of the first electrified trams in Latin America and a customs house imported in pieces from Liverpool.
There’s a joke in Brazil that the No. 1 sport is volleyball – because soccer isn’t a sport, but a religion.
In which case, Porto Alegre is perhaps the Brazilian soccer equivalent of the Vatican or the Potala Palace. The most southern of the 12 World Cup venues has two major teams – Gremio and Internacional – and their cross-town rivalry is the most intense in all Brazil.
Internacional vice president Diana de Oliveira says, apparently in all seriousness, that she never writes in blue pen, because blue is Gremio’s color. She said the idea that she could have children who would support Gremio is unthinkable.
”I will not put a Gremio child in the world,” she says.
Her husband is an Internacional supporter, although she says that’s not the only reason she married him.
City mayor Jose Fortunati is a Gremio man. He says his town council divides not only along political lines, but also between Gremio and Internacional fans.
The rivalry is ”very, very strong,” he said.
Not choosing sides, the Banrisul bank sponsors both teams.
When Coca-Cola sponsored the Brazilian league, Gremio refused to have the drink maker’s red on its jerseys, because red is Internacional’s color. So an exception was made allowing the team to change the lettering to black and white, the mayor said.
”It’s the only place in the world where Coca-Cola is not red,” he said.
Unfortunately for him, his wife and son both support Internacional. When the teams play each other, ”we don’t talk to each other after the match,” he said.
”He goes to bed when Gremio loses,” said his wife, Regina Becker.
”With a horrible headache,” added the mayor.
The city of 1.4 million people is hosting four group games – France-Honduras, Netherlands-Australia, South Korea-Algeria, Argentina-Nigeria – as well as the last 16 knockout games between the winner of Group G, likely to be Germany, and the runner-up from Group H.
All matches are at Internacional’s newly refurbished Beira-Rio stadium, which of course has red seats. Keeping things fair, teams will train across town at Gremio’s arena, which – you guessed it – has blue seats.
Thanks to American GIs, ”Natal was the first place in Brazil to wear jeans, chew chewing gum and wear Ray-Bans,” says Mayor Carlos Eduardo Nunes Alves.
Quite a coincidence, then, that the U.S. team will play one of its World Cup group games in the Atlantic coast city.
Its location on Brazil’s northeastern bulge made Natal strategically important in World War II, because it was the closest jumping-off point in Latin America to Africa, 1,800 miles to the east across the Atlantic.
Watching Brazilians turn a day at the beach into art, surfing the warm waves and frolicking in the sun, it’s now hard to imagine how important Natal was to the war effort. Its Parnamirim field became the largest U.S. air base outside the United States, a ”Trampoline to Victory” for troops and supplies heading for combat in Africa, Europe or Asia.
The city has a ”Miami beach,” a name which local tour guides say was left behind by GIs who used to bathe there.
The mayor was skeptical of that claim. But ”a lot of Americans married women from here,” he said.
During the World Cup, his City Hall plans to commemorate the American connection by making postcards of a photo taken when Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Getulio Vargas of Brazil met in Natal in January 1943 to cement their nations’ wartime cooperation.
The United States plays Ghana at the Arena Das Dunas, an airy bowl naturally cooled by sea breezes, with white roof arches reminiscent of wind-sculptured sand dunes and 42,000 seats in the light and dark blues of the Atlantic. Other games are Mexico-Cameroon, Japan-Greece and Italy-Uruguay.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester