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Explained: Why the decision to shift Copa America to Brazil amid Covid-19 surge has raised concerns

With 10 countries taking part, the Copa America was slated to be played in Argentina and Colombia this year. This would have been the first time in the 105-year history of the tournament that it would have had joint hosts.

Written by Deeptesh Sen , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: June 4, 2021 8:15:48 am
Copa America 2021 BrazilWith less than two weeks to go after Argentina pulled out, CONMEBOL, which was reluctant to cancel the tournament for a second consecutive year, decided to shift it to Brazil. (Reuters File)

Copa America 2021 will be played in Brazil this year, with the country agreeing to stand in as emergency host after Colombia pulled out citing unrest in the country and Argentina was dropped because of the escalating number of Covid-19 cases.

Alejandro Domínguez, who is the president of CONMEBOL, the South American football federation, on Monday announced that the tournament is being shifted to Brazil. He also thanked Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for “opening the doors” to his country and agreeing to host the tournament at the last moment.

Welcoming the move, Bolsonaro, while speaking at the Brazilian Sports Sponsorship Announcement Ceremony on Tuesday, said, “On what is up to the federal government, the Copa America will be held in Brazil. Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been saying, I regret the deaths, but we have to live.”

The Copa America will be held in four Brazilian cities this time — Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Goiania and Cuiaba. The opening match will be an encounter between Argentina and Chile on June 13 while Brazil will begin its title defence against Venezuela a day later.

But there has been stiff opposition from certain quarters within Brazil over its decision to host the Copa America despite the country experiencing a Covid surge. Soon after Brazil was announced as the new host, the hashtag #CovaAmerica — Cova is the Portuguese word for grave — started doing the rounds on social media, with many sharing memes of a coffin kicking a ball shaped like a virus.

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So how bad is the Covid crisis in Brazil now and is it really too risky a move for the country to host the Copa America at this moment?

Why was the Copa America shifted to Brazil at the last moment?

With 10 countries taking part, the Copa America was slated to be played in Argentina and Colombia this year. This would have been the first time in the 105-year history of the tournament that it would have had joint hosts.

But social and economic unrest caused by anti-government protests made it difficult for Colombia to host the tournament. Cops were involved in clashes with protesters in the Colombian cities of Pereira and Barranquilla, the latter of which was scheduled to host the final.

A request by Colombia to have the tournament postponed was rejected by CONMEBOL, which said it was impossible to push back the Copa America to November as the country requested “due to conflict with the international calendar.”

Colombia A woman dances while others play drums during a protest at Bogota in Colombia (Reuters photo)

Thereafter, Colombia pulled out as co-hosts of the tournament on May 20.

“CONMEBOL guarantees the realization of the 2021 Copa America and in the coming days will inform on where the games originally scheduled to be held in Colombia will be played,” the football federation said in a statement after Colombia decided to pull out.

The decision to shift the tournament away from Argentina was motivated by the rising number of Covid cases in the country. Though CONMEBOL did not disclose the exact reason, it said “present circumstances” compelled them to arrive at the decision.

With less than two weeks to go after Argentina pulled out, CONMEBOL, which was reluctant to cancel the tournament for a second consecutive year, decided to shift it to Brazil.

Scrapping the tournament this year would have led to huge financial losses for the governing body — the last Copa America, held in Brazil in 2019, brought in $118 million and was the second biggest annual source of revenue after the Copa Libertadores, which is the equivalent of the Champions League in Europe.

CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez said the decision to choose Brazil was unanimous among the council members.

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What have been the reactions to Brazil’s decision to host the Copa America?

The move to hold the tournament with the pandemic still raging in the country has drawn fierce criticism from many local government officials in Brazil. With Bolsonaro currently facing an investigation over his government’s handling of the Covid crisis, senator Renan Calheiros, who is the rapporteur of that inquiry, recently referred to the Copa America as the “Championship of Death”.

“It is unbelievable that the federal government wants to host the Copa América here in Brazil at the very moment when the pandemic is at its worst, filling our cemeteries and our ICUs like never before. And the third wave is starting to arrive,” the CNN quoted Calheiros as saying during a hearing of the parliamentary commission which is heading the investigation.

Calheiros also issued a public appeal to Brazilian star Neymar not to take part in the tournament. “Neymar, do not take the field in this Copa America, while your friends, your relatives, your acquaintances continue to die and the vaccine does not reach our country,” Calheiros told Radio Eldorado.

He added, “This is not the championship we need to compete in. We have to compete in the vaccination championship. It is in this championship that you need to score goals, so that our score is changed…On this score [vaccination], we are in the last [few] places. In the ‘death championship,’ we are in second place, with the second highest number of deaths in the world. The Brazilian team cannot agree with this. ICUs and cemeteries are full. Under what conditions are we going to celebrate a goal for Brazil?”

Opposition politicians, including Workers’ Party (PT) of Leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who currently has a lead over Bolsonaro in the polls for October 2022 presidential elections, have moved the country’s Supreme Court with an appeal to block the tournament, saying it would not be safe.

Brazil’s Socialist Party leader Carlos Siqueira tweeted, “Authoritarian governments used sport to win over the people. So does the president [Jair Bolsonaro] when accepting the Copa America in Brazil when we have almost 500,000 deaths by Covid. It is negotiating popularity with the spread of the virus in stadium clusters. A project of death.”

FIFPro, the worldwide players’ union, said it has serious concerns over the fact that the tournament was relocated at such a short notice. “The latest plan to arrange — at extremely short notice — for hundreds of footballers to compete in a tournament of such complexity leaves open uncertainty for each and every one of them, and their families…As with previous national team competitions during the COVID-19 emergency period, players must be able to prioritize their own and their families’ health without the risk of sanctions,” FIFPro said in a statement.

Matias Walker, the representative for Chile’s fifth district, has said the Chilean Football Federation has to seriously evaluate whether it is safe to send players and officials to a country which is the “epicentre of infections and deaths on the continent” and where “new variants appear every week”.

Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, who will be joining Barcelona from Manchester City this summer, has also expressed his reservations over the decision to have the tournament in Brazil. “It is clear that we are not well here (in Argentina), so that was a correct decision by CONMEBOL. If it is difficult there (Brazil), we cannot play,” Aguero told journalists upon arrival in Buenos Aires, the Associated Press reported.

He added, “We need to have a place we can play. There’s no time, we’ve already lost last year. There was a full year to see where it could be and what could happen, but that changes every month.”

In fact, many Argentina players were unhappy with the move to shift the tournament to Brazil and reached out to colleagues from other national teams hoping they would join forces to stop the Copa America from taking place, the ESPN reported.

Among the few to defend the decision was Senator Eduardo Girao, a close Bolsonaro ally. “We have nothing to celebrate, we have much to be sorry for. There is a big politicization of the tournament. We should celebrate Copa America coming here again. It is not a random tournament,” he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

How serious is Brazil’s Covid crisis now?

The announcement that Brazil would host the Copa America came just two days after Brazilians in over 200 cities and towns across the country held protests calling for Bolsonaro’s resignation over his response to the pandemic.

Experts have said that the P.1 variant of the virus, which originated in Brazil, is more transmissible and easily able to evade immunity. It has led to an unprecedented Covid surge in the country, with children also being seriously affected and the country reporting unusually high rates of infant mortality due to the virus.

Brazil has the worst death toll due to the pandemic after the United States, with more than more than 465,000 succumbing to the virus so far. In the past month alone, 56,000 people have died, data from the Johns Hopkins University states. The country has reported more than 207,000 fatalities in the last three months.

Moreover, Brazil has been averaging more than 60,000 fresh Covid cases daily. Vaccination has also been progressing at a sluggish pace — less than 10 per cent of the country’s population of 210 million is fully inoculated.

“This is complete insanity,” Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University who has been tracking the spread of Covid-19 in Brazil, told The New York Times about the country’s decision to host the Copa America. “It’s as if Rome were burning and Nero wanted a soccer game in the Colosseum to celebrate,” he added.

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