Copa America: Brazil’s pandemic disaster goes to extra time

The 2021 Copa America football tournament was always a stopgap solution. After the 2019 edition in Brazil, South American football governing body Conmebol decided to alter its calendar, moving the quadrennial international competition to even years instead of odd, beginning in 2020 with a tournament jointly hosted by Colombia and Argentina — two nations on opposite ends of the continent.

The pandemic saw the tournament pushed back a year, while pundits complained that this “extra” Copa America should simply have been canceled. That was not the end of the drama.

One after the other, Colombia and Argentina abdicated from their hosting duties, less than a month before the opening game is set to kick-off on June 11. The former said it could not guarantee the safety of matches amid a wave of social unrest; Argentina claimed its health system could not take the risk of further Covid-19 outbreaks. 

Again faced with a glorious opportunity to cancel the tournament and return in Ecuador in 2024, Conmebol dug in their heels. And they were saved at the last minute by the unlikeliest of hosts: Brazil, home to social unrest and a worsening Covid-19 pandemic.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro celebrated the decision, blaming any criticism of Brazil hosting the Copa America at such a delicate moment on a media conspiracy.

Prominent opposition figures called the decision a “mockery,” branding the 2021 Copa America as the “tournament of death.”

With over 460,000 total deaths, health experts warn that Brazil could be about to endure a third coronavirus infection wave — precisely during the Copa America. Low immunization coverage means that vaccines will not be able to stop another deadly spurt in deaths.

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians donned their masks and face shields to march against the government, demanding Mr. Bolsonaro’s impeachment. Demonstrations were met with violence from police forces in northeastern city Recife. Opposition movements have called a second protest on June 19, half-way through the Copa America group stage.

President Bolsonaro ensures the tournament will be safe, with fans not being allowed in stadiums. Furthermore, he complained that continental club competitions are still going on in South America and that this international tournament should not be treated differently.

But Brazilians’ rage is less about the tournament itself, and more about the government’s urgency in offering to organize it. Revelations from the Senate’s Covid inquiry show that offers for vaccine purchases lay unanswered for months in the government’s inbox, but the chance to organize a major football tournament was jumped on in a matter of hours. 

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