Tournament will be hosted by Brazil which has reported the second-highest COVID death toll in the world.
Belo Horizonte, Brazil – Diego Santos squints up at a muted TV screen in the popular Belo Horizonte bar-restaurant he is a manager at.
Santos is talking about the lack of interest in this year’s Copa America – football’s oldest tournament – while hosts Brazil are taking on Peru.
Suddenly, Brazil appear to have scored. Santos looks around for confirmation, but few, if any, of the smattering of patrons are paying the match any attention, let alone celebrating.
The silence, hanging in the air like the great Pele leaping for a header, speaks louder than anything Santos just said.
But it is not usually like this. The stylish bar-restaurant is one of many that sit in the shadow of the cavernous Mineirao, the stadium most famous for hosting Brazil’s biggest sporting humiliation: The 7-1 World Cup loss to Germany in 2014.
Sitting at the edge of Pampulha Lake and boasting countless TVs, this is a great spot to watch football. The venue was mobbed two years ago when five-time world champions Brazil won the last edition of the Copa America – also on home soil.
This year, the place is quiet.
“Two years ago was spectacular,” Santos told Al Jazeera, recalling queues of fans in yellow and green lined up outside and security guards turning revelers away.
“This year though, nobody is asking whether we are showing the games or not. Nobody cares. More people are wearing the shirts of domestic teams rather than the Selecao and I’ve received more requests to broadcast the European Championships than the Copa América.”
Leo Messi at Copa America 2021:
• Most goals (3)
• Most assists (2)
• Most dribbles completed (21)
• Most shots on target (10)
• Most accurate final 3rd passes (84)
Incredible. 🤩 pic.twitter.com/4hcB5YXjUE
— PF | Transfer News (@PurelyFootball) June 30, 2021
More apathy than adoration
The most obvious explanation for the lack of atmosphere is the coronavirus pandemic. Brazil has reported more than 18.5 million cases, including 518,066 deaths, the second-highest death toll in the world behind the US.
With a delayed vaccination programme and the government’s unwillingness to advocate social distancing measures, more people in Brazil continue to die each day from COVID than in any other country.
However, COVID is not the only reason people are staying away from the Copa America.
Intense politicisation has seeped into everything from broadcast rights to the famous yellow football shirt.
Additionally, Brazil’s ongoing domestic leagues and a European Championship featuring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, World Player of the Year Robert Lewandowski, and world champions France created an oversaturated football calendar in which the Brazilian national team is no longer the biggest pull.
Even the novelty of a South American tournament is fading. This year’s Euros is the first since 2016 but the Copa America has been held four times since 2015.
All these factors ensure the tournament is generating more apathy than adoration among Brazilians.
The Selecao’s tournament-opening 3-0 win over Venezuela on June 13 – played, like all games so far, without fans in the stadium – recorded the lowest national TV audience for an opening match in the competition’s history. Ratings have barely improved since.
“It’s impossible to say COVID is the only reason,” Cristiano Ferreira, a soldier located in Belem, 2,500km (1,553 miles) north of Belo Horizonte.
“We had a big [health] problem earlier this year, but the city is calmer now. Lot of people are back out on the streets and the bars are open again. It’s almost normal. People here love football, so there’s a lot of talk about the local teams Remo and Paysandu. But I haven’t observed any enthusiasm for the Selecao or the Copa America.”
Traditionally, and especially during World Cups, Brazilian streets are decorated with paint and ticker-tape, cars draped in national flags, and the Brazil team shirt is near-omnipresent.
This year though, with the streets bare and the illustrious yellow jersey now associated with a show of support for Brazil’s polarising far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, there is nothing to suggest a major tournament is ongoing in the country.
“It’s very normal here in Belem to have little flags on the streets and everybody wearing the shirt,” Ferreira adds. “There is none of that though. It’s normal too for bars to have big screens showing the games live, but this year I haven’t observed even that. People just seem not interested.”
It’s normal too for bars to have big screens showing the games live, but this year I haven’t observed even that.
‘Like a bad joke’
Such a scenario should not be a complete surprise given the Copa America was supposed to be held in Colombia and Argentina but was then taken away due to civil unrest and COVID-19, respectively.
Bolsonaro, seeking a weapon of mass distraction from his own and the country’s myriad problems, offered to host the 28-game tournament against the advice of the nation’s incredulous health experts.
No stranger to criticism, Bolsonaro faced fierce backlash. Several multinational corporate sponsors withdrew, and opposition politicians called the event a “project of death”.
Walter Casagrande, who represented Brazil at the 1986 World Cup, accused the president of “genocide”.
The national team suggested it might even refuse to play, before releasing a quibbling statement confirming participation.
Although tournament organisers CONMEBOL, football’s regional governing body, promised all 65 members of each of the 10 national delegations would be vaccinated, the number of positive tests has been alarming.
Together with the Ministry of Health, CONMEBOL said 166 people had tested positive as of Friday: 115 outsourced service workers, 31 team staff, 17 players, and three organisers.
While Brazil’s players passed up their chance to speak up, Bolivia’s Marcelo Moreno did not.
After testing positive, the veteran striker made clear his anger on Instagram: “Thanks to Conmebol for that. It’s all your fault! If a person dies, what will you do? What matters to you is just MONEY. Is a player’s life worth nothing?”
He later apologised and blamed his press officer, but not before being handed a one-match ban and a $20,000 fine.
“Having the tournament in the middle of a pandemic is totally absurd,” Andryo Machado, a physical education teacher and personal trainer in Rio de Janeiro, which will host the final, told Al Jazeera.
“There are so few measures in place here to reduce the spread of the virus and its variants, yet there has been talk of fans being allowed in the Maracana for the final. It’s like a bad joke.”
Soap opera beats football
Two of the tournament’s five venues are in Rio after several possible host cities refused to be considered.
Among them is Manaus, the jungle city that, last year, became the first Brazilian municipality to dig mass graves. Just six months ago, it faced an emergency after running out of oxygen supplies, prompting a crisis and a parliamentary inquiry.
Located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, when the city was touted as a potential host, mayor David Almeida declared: “It’s not time to celebrate, it’s time to vaccinate.”
Yet Rony Brasil, an taxi driver working in Manaus, has noticed a return to normality in recent weeks. Last week, when Brazil faced Colombia, he went to a local bar to meet friends, although notably not to watch Neymar and Co.
“We went to watch Flamengo and there were eight tables full of people in the bar. When Flamengo’s game ended, the Brazil game began, but of those eight tables, only four remained. Everyone else went home,” Brasil told Al Jazeera.
“Here, in Manaus at least, the Copa America doesn’t get much attention. It’s not competitive enough. It’s not like Europe where you have lots of great teams. We only really have Brazil, Argentina, and maybe Uruguay.”
Viewing figures suggest the Manaus bar is a microcosm of the country.
Brazil’s leading broadcaster Globo lost out on the rights to the Copa America to rival SBT. It has, however, maintained a larger viewing audience while Brazil played its four group games.
Even as the Selecao demolished Peru 4-0, more than twice as many people watched a religious soap opera.
Data from the Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics shows the tournament has lost about 60 percent of its audience reach since 2019.
However, while Brazilians agree interest so far is minimal, they similarly concur things will likely change should their country reach the final.
With Brazil and Argentina finishing top of their respective groups, the two bitter rivals are on course to meet in the July 10 decider.
First, though, Brazil must overcome Chile on Friday.
“Nobody cares just now, but if Brazil goes all the way, the fans will start to appear,” bar-restaurant manager Santos said.
“And if that final is against Argentina, you can be sure they are going to dust off their yellow shirts and come watch.”