BUILDING CHALLENGES: Manaus' Arena Amazonia stadium was built specifically for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and will host four World Cup games.
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If rivers are the heart of Manaus, futebol (soccer) is undoubtedly its central passion. Like the rest of Brazil, this city is absolutely crazy about the game. Along with 11 other Brazilian cities, Manaus will host some of the games — four, to be exact — in this year’s FIFA World Cup, and locals are thrilled to welcome the world and showcase what their city has to offer. While Manaus doesn’t have a team in the top division of the country’s national league, the people here play soccer with great fervor. Every year, literally hundreds of amateur and semipro teams participate in the Peladão, a local tournament that’s big enough to support its own beauty pageant and a weekly newspaper.­ In the last year before the largest municipal stadium was demolished to make way for a new World Cup venue, more than 40,000 people attended the final game of the Peladão.

I decide to take in a couple of the tournament’s games at an agricultural college on the edge of town with Eric Gamboa, a member of the city’s World Cup organizing committee. On a patch of grass singed by the sun, past a bunch of disused tractors and next to a half-empty swimming pool, teams compete with intensity in sweltering heat for little more than pride and bragging rights. I chat with coaches, players and referees as my shirt sticks to my back with sweat. When I tell Gamboa that I fear I might melt — or perhaps burst into flames — we leave to grab a couple of beers.

American Airlines currently serves nine Brazilian destinations (BELO HORIZONTE, BRASÍLIA, CURITIBA, MANAUS, PORTO ALEGRE, RECIFE, RIO DE JANEIRO, SALVADOR and SÃO PAULO) via 119 weekly flights that include daily departures from ­DALLAS/FORT WORTHNEW YORK'S JFK INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, LOS ANGELES and MIAMI. Brazil’s leading airline, TAM Airlines, will join ­oneworld on March 31, continuing AA’s service to Brazil and providing access to six additional cities, including FLORIANÓPOLISFORTALEZA, FOZ DO IGUAÇU, ­GOIÂNIA, NATAL and VITORIA.

The next day, Gamboa takes me for a tour of the city’s new World Cup stadium, still very much under construction. It’s a place that has caused many headaches for local organizers as well as FIFA. Never before have World Cup games been staged deep in the heart of a rain forest, and as we don orange vests and hard hats and walk toward the hulking structure — and its attendant mess of cranes — I asked Gamboa about the challenge of building such a grand stadium in the Amazon. He laughs as he recounts a litany of serious problems, each of which, on its own, could’ve derailed the entire project. A canal had to be drained and the land around it leveled. Work schedules had to be adapted to the tropical wet/dry seasons, in order to keep the site from flooding. Even the chairs had to be made of a special type of plastic to ensure that the equatorial sun didn’t wash out their color before the first game day. And Gamboa adds, in imperfect English, pointing to the cranes, “We have no roads. These equipments came from the south of Brazil, on the river.”

As we climb to the stadium’s upper deck, Gamboa tells me that the venue was designed to incorporate traditional Amazonian elements: Its superstructure is supposed to look like an indigenous basket (it does, kind of), and the seats — colored orange and yellow — represent local fruits like pineapple, papaya and bananas.

A number of observers have noted that the closest parallel to the new stadium is the city’s opera house. The Teatro Amazonas is the greatest lasting testament to the days when Manaus was Brazil’s wealthiest city, a rubber boomtown of such epic proportions that its elite were able to use their vast resources to construct a miniature Europe in the heart of the rain forest. Architects modeled the city’s main market, the Mercado Municipal Adolfo ­Lisboa (which recently reopened after extensive renovations) after the famous Les Halles in Paris, and builders fashioned the neoclassical Teatro Amazonas almost exclusively out of materials brought in from Europe, via the Atlantic and the Amazon. Opened in 1896, it is topped by a dome decorated with 36,000 ceramic tiles in the colors of the Brazilian flag, and its interior includes Tiffany lamps, a massive golden chandelier and a number of works by Parisian artists on both the walls and the ceiling.