LATE last night, as fireworks continued to explode around the city of Manaus in salute of Brazil’s exciting opening day win over Croatia, workers were still making checks to the Arena da Amazonia, in readiness for a game that might not promise goals, but is bound to be utterly compelling in any case.
England v Italy in a stadium where there was once thick Amazon rainforest. It is a delicious, unique prospect. Two European footballing aristocrats pitched together in what some have described as football’s heart of darkness, with reference to Joseph Conrad’s novella from 1899.
That work concerned itself with a trip up the Congo in Africa, but many have delighted in relocating the uneasy, mysterious and fetid atmosphere conveyed by the author to this location 1000 miles from the mouth of the Amazon, in what is surely the most unlikely spot for a World Cup match in history.
Roy Hodgson, the England manager, had expressed the hope that his side might avoid being one of the eight teams scheduled to play at the Arena da Amazonia, in a city closer to Lima in Peru than it is to Rio de Janeiro, where England had already decided to pitch their base. Just before the World Cup draw in December, he described Manaus as “the place ideally to avoid”. The Daily Mirror went further, describing the gateway to the Amazon as a “crime-ridden hell hole”.
As expected, recent dispatches from Hodgson, who made a reconnaissance mission to Manaus in February, have been rather more diplomatic, though the concern now centres on a pitch that perhaps justifies the reservations the England manager initially harboured about coming here. While the Amazon might be conducive for many things, such as allowing rare species to flourish, it has proved difficult to maintain a football pitch that is suitable for use at the World Cup finals.
This intoxicating area with its suffocating climate might encourage fauna and wildlife to thrive, but it is not a natural habitat for footballers, particularly English ones, who are unused to playing football in conditions which could, even given the 6pm local time kick-off, reach 80 per cent humidity. “We’ve both got to play on it, whatever it is,” pointed out England goalkeeper Joe Hart earlier this week, with reference to the growing storm surrounding the threadbare, rutted pitch.
“They’ve worked day and night over here to make it the best it can be. We’ve got to appreciate we’re playing in the jungle, so we’ll take anything. Anything that means we’re playing in the World Cup, we’ll take.”
These comments will surely have found a receptive audience in Scotland, where even playing inside what might resemble a greenhouse is preferable to being on the outside looking in.
Work was on-going yesterday but areas of the pitch still looked bare and parched, despite the tropical storm of Wednesday night, and the recent prolonged period of rainfall that led to the Manaus authorities declaring a state of emergency as the Rio Negro, one of the largest Amazon tributaries, threatened to break its banks.
The standard of the turf further reduces the chances of this being a game that will share some characteristics with the opening World Cup fixture between Brazil and Croatia, which proved such an unexpectedly thrilling spectacle.
Admittedly, some of the drama was down to the incompetent officials, with Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers, who was in charge for last month’s Champions League final, given the task of controlling tonight’s Group D match in Manaus. This helps further strengthen the impression of traditional European powerhouse countries having been exiled in a remote location, where the past, and reputation, count for very little. This is a new, extremely alien environment for footballers who have grown accustomed to expecting the very best.
Such a setting demands adventurism, but will there be any? It seems unlikely, with Hodgson expected to resist the growing clamour for Raheem Sterling to start.
With the usually conservative Italy having lost first-choice left-back Mattia De Sciglio to injury, there is an appetite to see the Liverpool striker/winger asking questions of the replacement, although the fact this is likely to be the experienced Juventus player Giorgio Chiellini, who began his career at left-back but is now normally employed at centre-half, should dampen the hopes of those who entertain the notion that Sterling can unsettle the Italian defence.
Even though it might not be their first-choice rearguard, Italy can still be expected to keep a wean such as Sterling out of their normally so well-guarded close, should Hodgson be minded to take a risk on the 19-year-old, whom the manager has already admitted has been a stand-out in training. Sterling, though, has also been sent off in a friendly match, against Ecuador, and might be someone who the Italians will feel they can goad to do something that could leave England a man down, which is a horrifying thought for Hodgson to consider.
There are few games where a red card is likely to prove so ruinous to a team’s ambitions than one played in the middle of a dense jungle. While the Amazon rainforest, which is referred to as the “lungs of the planet”, is estimated to provide 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen, it will feel like there is precious little available to the players this evening, and both teams will want to rely on keeping their numbers intact.
One of the tasks undertaken by workers at the stadium last night was making sure the goal-line technology was functioning, with everyone keen to avoid a scenario which occurred during England’s last-16 clash with Germany in their last World Cup finals outing, four years ago.
Frank Lampard’s goal was not awarded, despite the ball having landed a yard or so over the line. England went on to lose 4-1, although few dared to venture an argument that the better side had lost. Tonight’s match is likely to hinge on finer margins. Influenced by the likely humid conditions and the caginess in recent past encounters between the sides, many have already described today’s contest as the most likely one in this World Cup to finish goalless.
The last meeting between the teams, at the quarter-final stage in Euro 2012, ended 0-0, and had to be settled on penalties, with Italy, perhaps predictably, emerging triumphant. England can rest easy in the knowledge that another draw tonight will go down in the ledger as such; indeed, both sides would surely take such an outcome if offered it now.
After Spain, England conceded the next fewest goals in qualifying, although some doubts still persist over the centre-half pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, while Leighton Baines, at left-back, is still adjusting to international level football, and will tonight play his debut game in the finals of an international tournament.
For experience, Italy can count on goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and playmaker Andrea Pirlo, while England have skipper Steven Gerrard and Rooney, with the last named, although younger than the others, acutely aware that this could be his last chance to shine at a World Cup.
The Manchester United striker has already spoken this week about his need to make the most of the opportunity. His bustling, all-action style might not be qualities best served for excelling in the heat and humidity that can be taken as read here in the heart of the Amazon, hence some reports that Hodgson is considering leaving Rooney out of his starting line-up, possibly in favour of Sterling,
However, it is also possible that Rooney could be the man issued with the task of containing Pirlo’s ability to control the middle of the park.
Although Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge could be charged with this Pirlo-minding brief instead, his goalscoring prowess might be considered more valuable, providing that there is a chance created on an evening when nothing is liable to come very easily, except, perhaps, heatstroke.