By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The FIFA World Cup kicks off tomorrow (Thursday) and the twelve host cities are preparing for the imminent arrival of euphoria. One of the cities making up the quartet of Northeastern hosts is Natal, and its stadium is the Arena das Dunas, open since the end of January.
While the Northeast is fiercely passionate about football (soccer), Natal is a relative footballing backwater in comparison to the likes of Salvador and Fortaleza. To reflect its status, just four games, all during the group stages, are to be played at the brand new stadium.
However, Natal will still see some of the world’s finest players in action; Italy and Uruguay, both former world champions, face each other on June 24th in what, on paper at least, is the pick of the matches at the Dunas Arena.
Unfortunately for the locals, the Seleção Brasileira (Brazilian national team) will not be gracing the turf in Natal. However one Group A clash will be played in the host city, having a potentially profound effect on Brazilian fortunes.
Mexico versus Cameroon, on June 13th, is the first game to be held at the stadium and comes the day after the FIFA World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia at the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo. That game is followed by Ghana versus the USA, on June 16th, Japan versus Greece, on June 19th, and finally Italy versus Uruguay on June 24th.
Mark Lassise, an America living in Rio who writes and hosts the television series Olhar Estrangeiro as seen on SporTV’s Tá Na Area every Thursday, has been visiting all twelve host cities and tells The Rio Times the Arena das Dunas is a wonderful piece of architecture, but is arguably unnecessary. “The Arena das Dunas is a gorgeous stadium, I’m just not sure it’s really needed in this military beach town,” he said.
“The roads are a mess around the stadium with what seems to be a dozen infrastructure projects going on at the same time, though, the city is easy to navigate because it has one major road. The experience at the stadium was awesome.”
“The game I saw there was for big stakes and the fans of América Futebol Clube [a local side] danced and sang more than any I have witnessed during my two tours of all the stadiums in Brazil over the last sixteen months. It was a great vibe, I expect a great experience for the foreigners coming to Natal for the World Cup!”
For those looking to get off the beaten track and enjoy a part of Natal beyond the World Cup offering, Lassise has another tip. “Go to the Dunas of Genipabu, take a Jeep tour and enjoy the ride… One of the best experiences of my life!”
Despite a famed lack of footballing heritage in the city, the Arena das Dunas will nevertheless host two local clubs once the World Cup is over: América-RN and ABC will use the ground for their home games. Also one of Rio’s big clubs are soon to play a game there. Fluminense will take on América-RN at the Arena das Dunas in the third round of the Copa do Brasil on August 6th.