With just three weeks to go until kick-off, doubts are growing over the chances of Argentina hosting of the Copa América international football tournament.
On Friday, Argentina's national football association (AFA) suspended all professional tournaments as a new coronavirus lockdown was imposed on the country by the government. However, matches for regional competitions such as the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana will still go ahead, as they fall under the remit of South American football’s governing body, CONMEBOL.
Players set to play in the tournament remain in the dark. National team coach Lionel Scaloni has named a long list of around 50 players for his squad, but has noted that his choices will depend on infections.
"In order to accompany the health measures announced by President Alberto Fernández to combat the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that we're going through, AFA has decided to suspend the scheduling of matches in all competitions ... from 8pm today until Sunday May 30, 2021 inclusive," said AFA in a statement.
President Fernández announced on Thursday a nine-day lockdown to begin on Saturday, adding that Argentina was "going through the worst moment in the pandemic" with a daily average over the last week of 27,000 cases and 500 deaths.
Speaking late Thursday night, responding to a question from a reporter, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta expressed his concerns about the hosting of the event, referencing widespread infections among footballers seen over the past couple of weeks.
"If you ask me, given today's situation, obviously we don't know how it will be at the time of the Copa América [begins]. But given today's situation, we are in a position to restrict any activity that may generate a risk of contagion,” said the opposition mayor.
"We have to do our best and avoid risky situations. We saw the other day how an entire football team was infected – I repeat that we have to avoid any situation that increases the rate of infections."
CONMEBOL v Colombia
The comments come after CONMEBOL dramatically stripped Colombia of co-hosting rights this week, after the country asked to have the competition postponed until the end of the year.
Colombia officially said it was due to there being little chance of fans attending, but the country has been gripped by weeks of social unrest that has left at least 42 people dead, and is also struggling with a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
November was pitched as an option, but the appeal fell on deaf ears with CONMEBOL citing "reasons relating to the international calendar and logistics of the tournament." Like the European Championships, the cup was due to take place last year but was postponed by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The governing body will now have to rapidly decide where to put on matches, with the opening match (Argentina v Chile) set to kick off on June 13 at the Monumental in Buenos Aires.
Earlier this week, prior to the announcement of new restrictions, Fernández had said Argentina would be prepared to host the Copa América by itself should Colombia pull out.
"We were consulted and said yes. With all due care. This would be a Copa América for television, that must be said. Under those terms we would be willing to honour our commitment," said the president. “We agreed with CONMEBOL to hold the Copa América and we are going to do it with the applicable restrictions."
CONMEBOL sources have told local outlets that Argentina will likely become the host for the tournament, though Chile and Uruguay have both offered to step in to replace Colombia. Paraguay are also believed to have offered to host matches.
"The organisation of the Copa América is subject to CONMEBOL, we are in discussions over the details of the part that Argentina had to organise,” said Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero on Friday. “We have had conversations but there is no definition."
At the moment, Copa matches will be played in the Argentine cities of Córdoba (Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes), Santiago del Estero (Estadio Único), Mendoza (Estadio Malvinas Argentinas) and Buenos Aires (Monumental). Should Argentina host all the matches, four other stadiums are expected to be added: Boca Juniors' La Bombonera, the Estadio Único de La Plata, Racing Club's el Cilindro de Avellaneda and Independiente's Estadio Libertadores de América.