England v Italy: Manaus stadium greets England fans with cement mixer serenade

The pitch is far from perfect

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The Independent Football

The sound of Brazil 2014 is not that of a samba dance or a commentator screaming: "Gooooolll!" but of cement mixers frantically churning out the last building blocks of a stadium.

The Arena da Amazonia is not quite finished but then nothing at this World Cup is quite ready. Two days before England and Italy arrive in the heart of the Amazon, they are still finishing the car parks.

"It will be ready by Thursday" is the cry both here and at the FanZone at Ponta Negra, where the Rio Negro – the vast tributary of the Amazon – resembles an inland sea.

Here, there are beaches of the kind Brighton might envy and 53 miles of television cabling still to be installed. It will be ready for when Brazil kick off a frantically anticipated World Cup.

The Arena da Amazonia stands on the site of an old stadium, the Vivaldao. A huge concrete bowl, it opened in 1971 after Brazil's glittering triumph at Mexico 1970.

It took a dozen years to build, most of them under military rule, which should explode the myth that fascist governments make things run on time. By comparison, the four years it has taken to demolish the Vivaldao and replace it seem the epitome of efficiency.

Sonia Rani, Upesh Babla, Naresh Ranga and Das Singh are not the sort of England fans that Manaus might have expected. They have travelled from Birmingham and Walsall, and this is their first World Cup. All are Manchester United fans except for Das, whose allegiance lies with Blackburn Rovers.

Friends from school and university, they will follow England for all three group games, from Manaus to Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo. Naresh, who has given up his job as a web designer, will continue travelling, probably first to Argentina and then Peru, with Machu Pichu his ultimate destination.

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The trip will cost each of them around £2,500. "But," said Upesh, "it was England, it was Brazil and it was a World Cup. We had to go." The Uruguay game in Sao Paulo is the main attraction and Das insists: "We want Luis Suarez to be fit. When you've come this far, you want to see the best players."

Upesh, at 27, is a seasoned traveller who went to the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow: "I don't think I'd be tempted to go to Russia [for the World Cup] in 2018, because of the racism. I went to Moscow by train from Latvia, which took 17 hours.

"I was in a cafe and a guy offered me outside, just because I was Asian. Fortunately the cafe was full of Reds who told him he would have to get through them first.

"I know everyone talks about England fans and the trouble they might cause but nobody mentions the Italians. In 2008, I was travelling through Italy in a motorhome on our way to Monaco to see Manchester United play Zenit St Petersburg in the Super Cup and we were in Milan.

"When the Inter fans saw our Manchester United scarves they began banging on the window and screaming and eventually the police told us to get out of town."

Sonia, who works for Deutsche Bank, said: "A few of my friends backed off the trip because they thought it too dangerous. My family were a bit apprehensive. There was this story of a woman giving an interview about the crime rate in Rio and she was mugged while being filmed.

"But we were out in Manaus and a police car kept following us around with the driver asking if we were all right. A friend of ours was dropped off in Rio by her taxi driver in the middle of nowhere. She went to a hotel, they phoned the police and the police took her where she wanted to go." It's rather more than you would expect from West Midlands constabulary.

For many England fans 2006 was the turning point. The hype that David Beckham would lift the World Cup in Germany was so intense, the performances so dire, that many vowed they would never watch England again.

The question for Sonia, Upesh, Naresh and Das is whether their journey to Brazil would be ruined if Roy Hodgson's side perform equally badly. "If England got knocked out in the groups, it would take the gloss off every-thing," said Upesh. "What I want to experience when we come back from Brazil is the buzz of England still being in the World Cup."

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