Copa Libertadores — South America’s answer to the UEFA Champions League — is back today, after a six-month hiatus. This return has not been — and will not be — an easy feat, with clubs and federations riddled with economic problems only exacerbated by the pandemic, not to mention the health risks for teams traveling to and from areas where the coronavirus continues to spread.
To make the return possible, the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) has developed a sanitary protocol to create “mobile bubbles,” by isolating players and coaches as much as possible from outside risks. Over USD 94 million have been invested in order to pay for charter flights for teams, isolated hotel wings in cities hosting games, as well as PCR tests for players and coaching staffs.
Still, there is no way to ensure that Copa Libertadores 2020 will be a success — neither from a sanitary perspective or competition wise. We explain why:
No true ‘bubble’ for Libertadores teams
As much as Conmebol is making an effort to isolate teams, the mere fact that weekly international travel is required makes it a risk. There is nothing in South America remotely comparable to what the NBA did for its 2020 playoffs or UEFA did for the final stretch of the Champions League.
Moreover, there is no region-wide free-circulation agreement (the Andean Community zone includes only Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; while Mercosur is made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay).
Meaning that, in many cases, passport controls are necessary — which is already a small poke at Conmebol’s “mobile bubble.”
The pandemic is not over
Since May, South America has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — six of the top 11 worst-hit countries are from the region. Curves are trending upwards in Argentina and Peru, with the latter posting the single highest Covid-19 death rate per 1 million people in the world. In Brazil, the spread might have slowed down in major centers, but remains uncontrolled in the interior of the country.
We also have the Venezuelan case, where the increasingly authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro has tampered with the data since the outbreak started.
Teams from multiple have shown concern about the competition. Executives at Paraguayan side Guaraní told editor Euan Marshall that they don’t feel safe. The team will travel to Argentina and Bolivia, and will host Brazilian side Palmeiras on September 23. Meanwhile, Argentina’s Defensa Y Justicia travels to Santos next month for a game. “Let’s cross our fingers for nothing to happen to us in Brazil,” said club president José Lemme.
Different reopening stages
South American teams’ football reopening has been uneven, which might also hurt the quality of play.
In Paraguay, a country less affected by the pandemic when compared to the rest of South America, games resumed as early as July.
Meanwhile, there is no return date to Argentina — where deaths have just topped the 10,000 mark. Training has been greenlit, but games haven’t taken place since March. And just two weeks ago, one of the strongest sides in South America, the Buenos Aires-based Boca Juniors, saw 22 athletes catch the coronavirus after the club’s “bubble” burst.
In Brazil, games resumed last month in a catastrophic fashion. Opening weekend saw outbreaks in five teams — with a game postponed after one first-division side had eight infected players among its starting 11. Things seem under control now, but Brazilian players are facing another problem: the calendar.
In order to compensate for the stoppage, teams are playing two times a week, every week — and more limited squads are already showing signs of fatigue.