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WTF, Fifa? The tribes have spoken

An hour’s jolting drive northwest out of Manaus, along the banks of the Rio Negro and into the jungle, feels like a long way from the corporate glitz of Fifa.

The roads are so bumpy that drivers have to steer up on to muddy banks to avoid potholes, and bugs almost as big as your fist feast on dogs, too hot to brush them off, sleeping under trees. But it is up here that you find the angry nub of so much of the controversy surrounding Brazil’s World Cup.

Down a small slip path off what could, at a push, be described as a main road, a man sporting green shorts, a magnificent feathered headdress, body paint made from berry juice on his arms and cheeks, and a big smile across his face greets the occasional visitor to his home.

Awyató (or “Jaguar”) is the chief of this outpost of the Sateré-Mawé tribe and he lives in a compound with his wife, their four children and 12 other families. They share their land with chickens, goats, dogs and a very friendly pig.

‘Learn from the white civilisation’
The Sateré-Mawé tribe comes from south of the Amazon in the jungle but 40 years ago a small group of them set up a base here, closer to Manaus, in order “to learn from the white civilisation about education and health”, Awyató says. Another draw was to help fight against the prejudice that indigenous people still suffer from in Brazil, and the Sateré-Mawé felt that one way to do this was through football.

The Sateré-Mawé, Awyató says, are “the biggest football fans among all the tribes” in the region and they have men’s teams and women’s teams, who are encouraged to play in local tournaments in Manaus. Awyató, in particular, loves to play and drinks guarana juice, made by his wife in a small stone bowl, before every game to give him energy.

Their home is primitive but they have some modern conveniences: a cellphone for Awyató, a video camera for the family and they watch TV occasionally if they go into town. All in all, things were going well, until the World Cup came along.

Of all the 12 stadiums hosting Brazil’s World Cup, Arena Amazônia in Manaus has been by far the most controversial. Besides the much-discussed inclement weather in the region, with the humidity reaching 80% in June, the logistics of building a stadium on an urban island in the rainforest required planning that would have deterred Fitzcarraldo.

Instead of dragging a steamer over a mountain, tonnes of stainless steel were shipped across the Atlantic from Portugal and up Amazonian tributaries. By the time the stadium was built, $300-million had been spent and three construction workers had died – for a stadium where only four World Cup games will be held.

Underlining the extravagance of the project, the existing stadium had to be torn down in order to meet Fifa’s regulations. There are plans for the new stadium to be used for games after the World Cup but football matches in remote Manaus only attract, at most, 1?000 people. Arena Amazônia accommodates 42?000.

Some have described it as the ultimate “white elephant”. HBO’s John Oliver, somewhat more evocatively, opted for “the world’s most expensive bird toilet”. Supporters of the stadium say it will bring attention to a remote town but attention doesn’t necessarily fill stadiums, let alone bring money, to a place like Manaus.

When Arena Amazônia’s pitch was looking decidedly parched days before its first game, England against Italy on Saturday, and it was alleged this was caused by an excessive use of fertiliser, this seemed like an unfortunate metaphor for the whole project.

And then there’s Manaus itself. The city is certainly not a one-pony town, but there are other things there that cry out for money a little louder than a new stadium.

Although it tries to sell itself as an eco-luxury destination for travellers en route to the Amazon, the truth is it’s glory days as “the Paris of the Tropics” in the late 19th century are long gone. The number of inhabitants of slums in Manaus is more than twice the national average and one in four houses doesn’t have access to running water. What they have instead is one big-ass stadium.

Awyató and his family are lucky. They are healthy and largely self-sufficient, making what little money they need by selling handicrafts in town and holding occasional events at the compound for tourists.

But life is not easy. A close relative recently died because they didn’t have enough money for petrol to take him to the nearest doctor, who is miles away, and much of Awyató’s time is spent trying to educate his children “properly”. He is “proud” that Brazil has the World Cup but less pleased with how Brazil has handled it.

“For the indigenous communities and favela dwellers, it’s hard to see so much money spent on the stadiums when there is such hunger and poor health, and that money didn’t need to be spent.”

But that is only part of his objection. Arena Amazônia’s elegant, interweaving design is based on an indigenous basket and patterns based on ones used by local indigenous tribes wind through the venue, including the snakeskin pattern painted on Awyató’s arms. But, he says, the tribes have not been invited to the stadium itself.

“I feel like Fifa and Brazil have robbed our culture; all of us tribes people feel that way. If they wanted to use our imagery, they should have included us. They know we love foot­ball and they have insulted us. I blame the government more than Fifa because they’re Brazilian and so should have been watching out for us. Instead, they have turned their backs on their own people.”

Awyató has loved football all his life. He doesn’t support a particular team but he loves following star players, like ones from the teams in São Paulo, Rio and, almost inevitably, Manchester United. But now that he will have some of the best players in the world playing relatively close to his home, he won’t be following the World Cup.

“We respect the government’s laws but they don’t respect us. Our ancestors owned all this land up here in the first place. How much would it have cost them to respect us and include us? Nothing.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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