Violent street protests in Colombia and a raging Covid-19 second wave in Argentina prompted CONMEBOL to dramatically switch the imminent Copa América to Brazil this week.
About 12 hours after CONMEBOL announced in a tweet that Argentina would not continue as host, South American football’s governing body said that Brazil would host the region’s premier international sports tournament instead – despite its own troubles with Covid.
“The oldest tournament of national teams in the world will make the entire continent shake,” CONMEBOL said on its official Twitter account.
Brazil, which has the second-most Covid-19 deaths and third-most cases in the world, is clearly not a risk-free setting to host the matches. But the local football league kicked off its new season last weekend without fans in the stands, and Brazil has few if any limitations to enter the country beyond a negative PCR test. Restrictions are imposed on a local level with the federal government largely advocating for a return to normality despite the sky-high infection and death rates.
CONMEBOL thanked Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Brazil’s football association for “opening the doors to the country for what is the safest sports event in the world.”
Yet hours after the announcement, the government said the event was still not confirmed and that talks with Brazilian Football Confederation, which requested the organisation of the tournament, were ongoing.
The announcement of the tournament triggered a wave of criticism including by Senator Renan Calheiros, who heads a parliamentary commission investigating the government’s policy to fight Covid.
“With over 462,000 fatalities, hosting the Copa América is like a championship of deaths,” he wrote in a Twitter post.
He even called on Brazil’s superstar forward to intervene. "Neymar, I want to have a word with you: don't agree to this Copa América in Brazil," he told the Paris Saint-Germain striker. "It's not the championship we need to be playing. We need to be in the championship of vaccines."
By Thursday, however, Bolsonaro seemed to have smoothed the way for Brazil to host.
"Brazil will host the Copa América," the far-right president said, saying the governors of Rio de Janeiro, Mato Grosso do Sul and Goias had agreed for their states to play hosts, plus the capital, Brasilia, and a fifth yet to be named.
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of potential pitfalls ahead as organisers race to pull together the June 13-July 10 championships.
At least six of Brazil's 27 states have said they will not host matches because of the pandemic. Opposition politicians meanwhile have petitioned the Supreme Court to block the tournament, saying it would not be safe.
"It's impossible to describe the insanity of trying to hold an event of this magnitude here now," said infectious disease specialist José David Urbaez.
"The worst phases [of the pandemic in Brazil] in 2020 were three to four times smaller than what we're seeing today. We have this false sense that things have gotten better. The reality is, we're still in a terrible phase of very rapid spread," he told AFP.
Complications with Argentina’s hosting of the event arose last week during meetings between government and CONMEBOL officials, when “strict protocols” were discussed.
Last Sunday, Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro said that it would be very difficult for the country to host the event due to the pandemic. Argentina implemented a stricter lockdown on May 21 amid a spike in coronavirus cases and is still struggling with high death tolls and infection rates.
“We have to be coherent with the current healthcare situation,” de Pedro said in an interview with C5N.
Residents in Argentina were cooling on the event too, given the virus crisis. Seven out of 10 Argentines said the country shouldn’t host the Copa América, according to a poll done by Buenos Aires-based consulting firm Poliarquía.
Brazil’s government, in contrast, has criticised lockdowns implemented by cities and states and Bolsonaro routinely wades into crowds without masks.