Belo Horizonte, Brazil – It is fitting that the underused Estadio Mane Garrincha football stadium in Brasilia sits almost within sight of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s office.
In a little more than a week, the cavernous arena is scheduled to host the opening match of arguably the most contentious and politicised Copa America in the history of the world’s oldest international football tournament.
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Whether it happens though, regardless of Bolsonaro’s obstinacy, remains to be seen.
Until late last month, the 10-team, month-long tournament was to be, for the first time, co-hosted by two countries: Colombia and Argentina.
The former’s plans were scrapped on May 20 due to civil unrest. Ten days later, with COVID cases in Argentina having risen 54 percent, the country swapped its hosting rights for the unwelcome title of having the world’s fifth-worst coronavirus outbreak per capita.
Within 24 hours, COVID-ravaged Brazil was unveiled as the emergency solution.
Alejandro Dominguez, president of CONMEBOL – South America’s football governing body – wrote on Twitter: “A tournament is coming that will make the continent vibrate.” He was not wrong.
Brazil the right choice?
The reality, much like COVID-19, is hard to shake: The 105-year-old tournament was switched from Colombia and Argentina because of political unrest and the coronavirus, yet relocated to a politically fractured country with the second-worst death toll in the world and no end in sight.
As of June 5, Brazil has reported just under 17 million coronavirus cases, the third most in the world, and more than 470,000 deaths, second behind the US.
Just 10 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated and the day after Brazil was confirmed as host, it recorded 94,509 new cases, the country’s second-highest number on record.
The decision to host the tournament prompted an eruption of criticism across South America. Footballers, politicians, health experts, lawyers and fans all expressed disbelief at the idea of hosting the tournament in a country that has consistently struggled to control the virus.
Brazil’s football federation has yet to make a statement and failed to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. But the Brazilian national team is against the idea of having the tournament at home.
On Friday, following the team’s win over Ecuador, captain Casemiro suggested the players did not want to take part in the tournament given the COVID situation in the country.
“We can’t talk about the issue [but] everyone knows what our position is regarding the Copa America,” Casemiro said. “It’s impossible to be clearer. We want to express our opinion after the game against Paraguay.”
High-profile stars such as Argentina’s Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez of Uruguay have voiced concern too, while the Chilean national team is also considering a boycott with coach Martin Lasarte saying playing in Brazil is a “gigantic risk”.
Soon after Dominguez’s tweet, memes of mocked-up mascots and logos featuring coffins and the virus molecule circulated online.
Using the Portuguese words for “variant” and “grave site” Brazilians rebranded the tournament Cepa America and Cova America.
“Every day, more than 2,000 people are dying in Brazil because of this virus, yet it has been happening for so long now it is being considered completely natural,” Dr Jamal Suleiman, an infectious disease specialist at Hospital Emilio Ribas in Sao Paulo, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s never-ending. It’s like 10 large passenger planes crashing every single day for months. No other country in the world is like this.”
South America is home to more than half of the 15 countries with the highest seven-day incidence of COVID cases worldwide.
Tite, coach of the Brazilian national football team, refuses to confirm if they will play in this years’ Copa America after top players say they won’t go due to the idiotic idea of holding a sporting event while thousands of people are still dying everyday from Covid 19. pic.twitter.com/GBOGI0EwH4
— BrianMier (@BrianMteleSUR) June 5, 2021
Yet, with $100m worth of television rights already sold, CONMEBOL is refusing to postpone its showpiece competition for a second successive year.
Without fans inside the stadium, Brazil is set to raise the curtain against Venezuela on June 13, before other matches take place in Cuiaba, Goiania, and Rio de Janeiro.
A study by Brazil’s O Globo newspaper found each of the four host cities to have fewer than 20 per cent of ICU beds available.
“Hosting the Copa America gives the message that the pandemic is under control,” added Suleiman.
“That can’t be underestimated and is exactly what Bolsonaro has been trying to do since the start, telling us it’s only a ‘gripezinha’ [small cold] and a ‘coisa de marica’ [thing for sissies]. Football isn’t a place associated with sissies, it’s seen as a macho sport. So the message that is being conveyed by hosting the event risks public health worsening considerably.”
In a COVID-free context, the emergency decision could appear logical.
In the past seven years, Brazil has hosted the football World Cup, Olympics, Under-17 World Cup, and the 2019 Copa America. The country undoubtedly boasts the best infrastructure in the region for hosting a major sports event.
“I’m against the Copa America being held this year because it’s losing its prestige, but if we’re going to have it, then Brazil is a good option,” said Lucas Assis, a 21-year-old student from Rio de Janeiro.
“Our domestic leagues are running and other teams from South America played Libertadores matches here last week, so I don’t see the difference. The mainstream media is completely against Copa America, but they have no problem broadcasting domestic football, so it feels hypocritical and political. For me, all this outrage is more to do with TV rights than people dying.”
Can vaccines rescue the tournament?
CONMEBOL argues that with 50,000 vaccines provided by Chinese manufacturer Sinovac, it can vaccinate all team delegations before the tournament begins.
Yet, time is not on the organisers’ side. A period of three weeks is recommended between the two doses. Suleiman calls the logic “completely flawed”, noting also the dangers posed to peripheral unprotected workers, such as ballboys, bus drivers and hotel staff.
“It is crazy,” said Monica Sapucaia Machado, a professor at the Brazilian Institute of Public Law in Brasilia. “They say they will vaccinate the travelling parties, but what about the people working in the airports, hotels, restaurants? Do we expect the players to stay in their hotel for a month? It’s ludicrous.”
Last week, David Neres of Ajax and Sao Paulo’s Robert Arboleda were arrested at a clandestine party with more than 100 people in attendance. Such secret events are a common theme in Brazil, where each state governor sets its own rules.
“The pandemic is completely out of control here,” said Suleiman. “The public hospitals are full, the private hospitals are full, everyone is working to their maximum capacity. Drugs for patients intubated in Sao Paulo will run out at the latest next week with no restock forecast. It’s not a comfortable situation.
“Football is a great sport, an emotional game, but the country doesn’t need the Copa America at this moment. What the country needs is a vaccine.”
The controversial decision arrived less than a week after tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of 200 Brazilian cities calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro.
The president has routinely played down the gravity of the coronavirus, is opposed to lockdowns, and questioned the effectiveness of vaccinations.
On Wednesday night, Bolsonaro confirmed the tournament will be held in Brazil and said the same protocol as the Copa Libertadores and World Cup qualifiers will be followed.
Yet, opposition politicians have already approached the Supreme Court with the intention of suspending the tournament on grounds of public health.
Brazil’s Socialist Party leader Carlos Siqueira called it a “project of death” while Senator Renan Calheiros urged Brazil star Neymar Jr to take a stand. Legal actions have been filed in various states across the country.
Professor Machado told Al Jazeera that Bolsonaro’s decision to greenlight the tournament is likely a “diversionary tactic” and “a means of deflecting attention” at a time when he and his government’s management of the pandemic is the subject of much criticism in a parliamentary inquiry.
Adding that some legal actions may have results, she believes it is unlikely they will be enough to force a suspension.
“The problem we have in Brazil now is we have no control,” Machado said. “Legal and technical opinions, things that have been studied for generations and are evidence-based, are not being used to make important decisions. I understand that football to Brazil is a very important business, but I don’t see how this is a smart move from any perspective, even economically.
“Excuse the expression but what’s the goal here?”