World Cup 2014: England v Italy venue Manaus is a triumph of the spirit – or one of the great follies of the Brazil tournament

Humble location for England’s first game is at odds with the tournament’s glitz

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If you want to know why they are playing in what has been labelled the World Cup’s heart of darkness, go to Manaus’ central square.

The pink façade and the white columns of the Teatro Amazonas, advertising productions of Carmen and Lucia di Lammermoor, is either one of the great follies of the age or a triumph of the human spirit. In 1896 they built an opera house in the middle of the Amazon. Everything was shipped up the great river from Europe. The 36,000 tiles that make up the roof were imported from Alsace, then part of the Second Reich. The curtain was painted in Paris, the chandeliers were from Italy, the balconies fashioned from English cast iron.

In 1982, when Brazil’s lovely, lissom side of Zico and Socrates was somehow failing to win the World Cup, the director Werner Herzog filmed Fitzcarraldo, the story of how one man (Klaus Kinski) was driven into madness by trying to build an opera house in an Amazonian town not unlike Manaus; how nature crushes ambition.

You might say the same of Manaus’ other great building, the Arena da Amazonia, where on Saturday night in soaking humidity, England will begin their World Cup campaign.

Like the opera house, every one of the stadium’s 756 sections was prefabricated in Europe: the Germans built the roof, the rest was constructed in Portugal and shipped up the Amazon, a thousand miles into the interior. It cost £174m – in real terms three times the price of the opera house. It also cost three lives.

The monorail and the fast bus lanes that were supposed to have linked the stadium, which lies among the car showrooms of the suburbs, to the rest of the city were never started. Even without them, the stadium went £40m over budget and a section of the roof collapsed during the rainstorms that sweep in from the Amazon. Last month a state of emergency was declared when floodwaters from the Rio Negro, the Amazon’s great tributary on which Manaus lies, threatened four districts of the city. There were fears that stadium would be blacked out by power cuts.

And yet it is the suffocating heat and the kind of humidity that stings the eyes that will dominate the thinking of Roy Hodgson and the Italy manager, Cesare Prandelli.

Mirandinha, who brought flecks of Brazilian glamour to Newcastle United in the late 1980s, predicted England would “struggle to breathe”. It would not be the first time.

In 1986, just before they were due to face Morocco in Monterrey, the England doctor, Vernon Edwards, stuck a thermometer into the pitch at the University Stadium. It registered 40 degrees. Bobby Robson made him promise to keep that information from the players.

It is no more folly to stage a game here than it is to play in July in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Jalil stadium, something all the Premier League’s major clubs have attempted for multi-million pound guarantees on the vast pre-season tours deemed necessary to “sell the brand”. Three years ago, in the kind of 80 per cent humidity England will encounter on Saturday night, Chelsea got their mascot, Stamford the Lion, to dress up in full gear in Malaysia, something for which they managed to escape prosecution.

Saturday’s game could and should have kicked off at 9pm in Manaus, but since this would have meant a 2am start in London and 3am in Rome, it was deemed unacceptable by European broadcasters.

This was the same logic that had seen Ireland kick off in afternoon temperatures of 110 degrees in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl during the 1994 World Cup. And yet on the same day Jack Charlton’s side were driven to exhaustion, 250 spectators at Wimbledon fainted or were treated for heat-related complaints.

The whole purpose of a World Cup is that it should represent the planet that stages it. The last time England came to South America for a World Cup was in 1962, to a Chile destroyed by earthquakes.

The president of the Chilean FA, Carlos Dittborn, bidding for the tournament, pleaded: “Chile must have the World Cup because we have nothing.” They do not have nothing in Manaus – Samsung manufactures most of Brazil’s televisions here in the country’s fastest growing city, but the gaudily painted houses of the old rubber-boom town have long faded.

Above the battered streets, where Brazil shirts compete with watermelons as the most saleable commodity, they hang yellow and green strips of plastic as a cheap and cheerful way of celebrating a tournament that will never be cheap and has thus far not been too cheerful.

Manaus is a friendly, unpretentious city, proud to be part of the great adventure.  Despite the apparent folly of building a £174m stadium in a city whose main football club, Nacional, is essentially a non-league team, there have been few of the demonstrations against the cost of the World Cup that have scarred other parts of Brazil, most notably Sao Paulo.

Eraldo Leal, the man who co-ordinated the building of Manaus’ World Cup facilities, said he would probably cry the moment England v Italy kicked off. And yet not even he can provide convincing answers as to what will become of the Arena da Amazonia once the final whistle goes on Honduras v Switzerland on 25 June.

He may want to cast a glimpse of the Pontiac Silverdome, where Hodgson led out the Swiss team in the 1994 tournament. The Silverdome lies ruined and abandoned, a victim of the bankruptcy of Detroit.

Not far, at least by the standards of the Amazon, from Manaus, lies Fordlandia. It was a town purpose-built to supply rubber for the Ford Motor Company. Sadly, while Henry Ford found work for plenty of architects, he did not employ a botanist who could have told him rubber trees would never grow in Fordlandia’s broken soil.

Eventually, it was abandoned, swallowed up by the vastness of the Amazon, and for Brazil’s most improbable football ground it is hard not to imagine a similar fate.