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Amazon city is World Cup winner

December 6, 2013

COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (AP) — The Amazonian jungle city of Manaus was the big winner at the World Cup draw.

Branded “the place ideally to avoid” by England coach Roy Hodgson earlier this week, the humid, steamy city far from the football hotspots of Brazil became the tournament’s must-see venue on Friday.

Manaus got lucky beyond its dreams despite being awarded just four group-stage matches at the 44,000-capacity Arena Amazonia.

England vs. Italy tops a 4-match World Cup bill on the opening Saturday, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal comes to play the United States on the second Sunday.

Two more European visitors must also trek northwards, for Croatia vs. Cameroon and Switzerland vs. Honduras.

“We won the World Cup today,” Miguel Capobiango, World Cup coordinator for the Amazon state governor’s office, told The Associated Press. “It’s very, very good. I’m smiling.”

Some team coaches did not share his enthusiasm.

Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld is now rethinking his team’s booking of a training camp more than 2,700 kilometers (1,680 miles) away near Sao Paulo, and his fellow German Volker Finke, the Cameroon coach, described the prospect of playing in Manaus as a “little bit of a problem.”

Hodgson steered clear of strong opinions Friday after previously igniting the Manaus mayor’s anger.

“We would also prefer that England doesn’t come,” Manaus mayor Arthur Virgilio said on the eve of the draw. “We hope to get a better team and a coach who is more sensible and polite.”

Naturally, the draw fulfilled England’s long-shot odds of opening the show for Manaus on June 14.

“He’s one of the few people in the world who is not curious about the Amazon, who doesn’t want to know Manaus,” Mayor Virgilio said of Hodgson, who is one of the more urbane English football men.

As a keen reader, Hodgson probably already knows that English influence runs deep in the history of Manaus.

British businesses came to the Amazon for its rubber, invested in architecture copying the style from back home, and their workers left behind the football clubs they created more than 100 years ago.

England fans making Manaus the first stop on their World Cup tour will find much more native culture on offer.

“We have plans that you can come and fish for piranhas,” Capobiango said of the city nestled near where the Amazon and Negro rivers join at the “Meeting of the Waters.”

The Manaus area is also known for alligators, snakes, famously big spiders and potentially a few mildly hostile locals.

“There will be more people cheering for Italy than England. It is normal. But this first game will finish this trouble,” Capobiango said of any lingering feeling between the major’s office and the England camp.

“I have never been to the Amazon. It will be a very interesting experience, not just for me but for the team,” Hodgson said after the draw.

Though his anxieties about climate and travel times from England’s beachfront hotel in Rio de Janeiro still hold true, England was at least lucky in drawing Italian opponents which could also struggle in Manaus.

“There is no doubt the climate in the north for European teams is going to be tougher,” said Hodgson, who coached Switzerland at the 1994 World Cup in the United States where some games were played in 40-degree (104 Fahrenheit) heat.

Current Swiss coach Hitzfeld acknowledged “Yes, we have to think about it” when asked by the AP if his team might move from temperate Sao Paulo state.

“We have to think again, maybe change a little bit the (training) program because for me it was surprising to go in the north,” said Cameroon coach Finke, whose players are mostly with European clubs. “This is why it is also difficult to go here in this climate.”

The Americans are committed to staying in Sao Paulo, but opponent Portugal has not yet settled on a base camp.

Croatia coach Niko Kovacs said a city on the tropical north-eastern coast could be a better option.

“Maybe we are here in Salvador, it is much shorter to Manaus than from Rio,” Kovacs said.

In Manaus, they just plan on awaiting star guests with a warm welcome.

“We are talking about world (class) players, and they have to be prepared,” Capobiango said. “It is not the first time you have the World Cup in a country where you have hot temperatures.”

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