The Italian national team practices beneath a full moon at Arena da Amazonias in Manaus, Brazil, on June 13, 2014, for its opening match of the 2014 World Cup against England the following day.
MANAUS, Brazil — After arrival in this remote metropolis surrounded by jungle, you quickly sense only the thinnest of margins separates the real Manaus from the idyllic, festive World Cup bubble FIFA and the Brazilian government have improbably concocted, accessible only by boat or airplane.
Arena da Amazonia is the nearly $300 million dollar stadium that three workers died building; it will go mostly unused after hosting four tournament matches. The side streets immediately adjacent to it are jubilantly decorated. What would be drab and dirty pavement and sidewalks are painted in the Brazilian flag's vibrant blue, green and yellow as plastic streamers flutter overhead. Banners welcome visitors in three languages.
But turn your back to the arena and walk just one block down those narrow streets. You see something different: Cement slicked with tropical grime, graffiti and mangy stray dogs. Not a "hell-hole," as one British newspaper reported, but a city full of tough edges and poor people.
The arena's media center is air-conditioned and clean and has yellow bean-bag chairs; it's a respite from the stifling heat. Thousand-dollar cameras snapped away as England manager Roy Hodgson and captain Steven Gerrard took the podium for a Friday afternoon press conference behind World Cup sponsor Adidas' official tournament ball.
But that very same day, workers in hard hats and dusty replica soccer jerseys toiled away in the mid-afternoon sun on the perimeter of the expensive complex that was still notquite done, 24 hours before its big debut.
Manaus rang in the 2014 World Cup in joyous style on Thursday afternoon, gathering on the banks of the Rio Negro to watch on giant screens as host Brazil opened up the tournament with a bizarre win over Croatia.
But on Saturday evening at 6 p.m. ET, the monolithic Arena da Amazonia roars to life for the first time, hosting Group D rivals England and Italy. Then, and only then, the World Cup comes to Manaus in earnest.
It's arguably the World Cup group stage's most epic matchup, pitting two proud World Cup-winning European sides (only eight teams, both the Three Lions and the Azzurriamong them, have ever held the trophy) against each other in a an unforgiving equatorial environment. From the ground in Manaus, here's what you need to know.
The stakes? As high as they get
The USA's Group G may be tougher top to bottom, and Spain, Chile and the Netherlands make Group B plenty formidable — but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fearsome threesome than Group D's troika of England, Italy and Uruguay.
The upshot? Losing in Manaus on Saturday would be devastating to both England and Italy's hopes of advancing to the knockout stage. A tie would be more acceptable for underdog England, but make no mistake — both squads could really use a win here with Uruguay looming.
Both England and Italy have dangerous goal-scorers — Mario Balotelli for Italy, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge for England — who play in front of somewhat weakened midfields. England's Steven Gerrard and Italy's Andrea Pirlo are both talented veterans, but their legs are not so young any more. Pirlo, in particular, is still quite dangerous thanks to his wily passing and overall savvy — but defense is another story.
An England win wouldn't be a total shock, but it would be a mild surprise. Manager Roy Hodgson believes his squad is ready to present itself well, however.
"We think we are physically fit, we think we are mentally fit and we think that we are tactically prepared," Hodgson said at Friday's press conference. "That's the most you can ever hope for."
Now ain't that a pitch
It's hot as hell here. Stand outside in the sun and humidity for 10 minutes and you're instantly layered in a greasy coat of head-to-toe moisture. Of course, this is the Amazon jungle — to expect anything else would be daft.
The bigger story on conditions this week: the pitch at Arena da Amazonias. On Wednesday it looked brown, furrowed and not fit for the World Cup.
That same day, the head groundsman for the Spanish company in charge of the pitches at Arena da Amazonia and six other World Cup stadiums told The Guardian "I don’t think it’ll be in good condition" by Saturday's match.
"There are no roads, all the machinery and materials had to be brought by ship, there’s no fertilizer, no seeds," he said. "Everything has been complicated.”
But wait! By Friday evening's open training sessions, the once-dusty field looked remarkably better from afar, with no brown to speak of. It almost looked too good; British media have speculated that it was, in fact, painted green for appearance's sake.
Both Italian and English players and coaches insisted at Friday's press conferences that the pitch wasn't bad at all — though you have to wonder what they'd say in private. At least any lingering bumps and lumps will likely be a wash as far as advantage is concerned.
One more thing worth noting about the heat: Saturday's 6 p.m. kickoff arrives after the sun is off the pitch (some fans in the upper tiers, however, won't be so lucky). England's training session at 5:15 p.m. Friday came on a field that was not dappled with one spot of sun.
Italy trained a couple hours later under a full Amazonian moon, which made for a stunning scene — done only a modicum justice in the photo atop this post.
Two fearless predictions
Both teams will play their butts off, because this is the World Cup — but even more so because of the stakes surrounding England and Italy in lethal Group D. Playing their butts off in grueling conditions makes for a rugged affair lacking much real artistry.
I predict that Rooney continues his career-long scoreless World Cup streak, while Balotelli finds a crack in England's tired defense late to deliver the Azzurri a 1-0 win and three crucial points in the group table.
But here's a bigger prediction: No matter the result, Arena da Amazonias is breathtakingly lovely inside. With millions of eyes turned to Saturday's most important match, it will shine for at least one evening. It will shine spectacularly enough for the world to forget — ever so briefly — the context, controversy and reality that surrounds the World Cup's sanitized, made-for-TV bubble.