COVID, politicisation and the European Champions have worn the gloss off the world’s oldest football tournament.
Europe might be waiting for England versus Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2020 showpiece but there is an even bigger match to look forward to in South America as an older rivalry between two more successful teams kicks off in Saturday’s Copa America final.
Brazil against Argentina is a true clasico.
The teams first met in 1914 and in the years since, they have established themselves as two of the most storied sides in world football.
Together they have won seven World Cups.
The two teams have been head and shoulders above their rivals in this year’s Copa America and in Neymar and Lionel Messi have the tournament’s two standout performers.
Argentina are unbeaten in 19 games going into the showdown at the Maracana stadium, while Brazil, the hosts and reigning champions, have not lost since Argentina beat them in a November 2019 friendly.
This year’s final is especially interesting because of the timing, in terms of organisation and personnel.
The tournament was supposed to be held in Colombia and Argentina but Brazil took over at the last minute due to unrest in Colombia and a COVID-19 surge in Argentina.
It is also another tournament where Argentina – and more notably Messi – are seeking to end a long trophy drought.
They have not won a major title since lifting the Copa America in 1993 and Messi has never won silverware with the national side.
Brazil are narrow favourites and not just because they are at home and have a slightly better record so far in the tournament. They also have a reputation for beating Argentina in crunch games.
The two sides have met four times in finals, three in the Copa America and one in the Confederations Cup – in 2005.
Argentina beat Brazil in the Copa America’s forerunner in 1937 but have not done so in a showpiece match since.
Brazil won in 2004 in the Copa America final in Peru and again in Venezuela in 2007, when they overran a fancied side that contained a young Messi in his first international final.
A major controversy has, meanwhile, taken place ahead of the final.
A famous Brazilian sports journalist, Fabiola Andrade, posted a photo of herself wearing Argentina’s jersey, saying that she would support Argentina instead of Brazil because Messi deserves a title.
This has generated huge discussions involving celebrities, politicians and players, with Neymar using expletives against “whoever cheers against”.
But away from this, the mood in general has been one of disregard towards the tournament.
Brazil has reported more than 19 million cases of coronavirus, including over 531,600 deaths, the second-highest death toll being the US.
Maracana opens up for fans
On Sunday, up to 7,800 people will be allowed inside the 78,000-capacity Maracana for the final.
This would make it the first match in the 2021 Copa America, South America’s largest international football tournament, with fans in the stands.
Those wishing to attend must arrive with a negative coronavirus test taken no longer than 48 hours earlier. Once inside, they will be required to observe social distancing.
More than 29,000 have died of the coronavirus in Rio alone. The city’s mortality rate from the virus is 432 per 100,000 inhabitants, almost double the 252/100,000 countrywide figure.
“I don’t support hosting the tournament and I never will,” 36-year-old Brazilian Paulo Leierer told Al Jazeera.
“It’s unacceptable [given the COVID situation]. Copa America hasn’t helped take the COVID issues away. What helps to ease the worry is economic stability.
“I love football but haven’t really followed the national team for a while since it was being used for politics by a candidate that attacks democracy, I lost interest.”
That moment when Brazil finally won Olympic gold in front of a delirious crowd at the Maracanã Stadium. Can they win again tonight in the #CopaAmerica final? 🇧🇷#StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/K7BrGWkMXf
— Olympics (@Olympics) July 10, 2021
Strong support for hosting the event came from Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, whose much-criticised handling of the pandemic is the subject of a parliamentary investigation.
The build-up to the final has gained a little more traction and interest.
Match ratings on public TV were very low, not only losing in number of viewers to the Euros but also other regular shows.
“I don’t support the tournament taking place in Brazil because of the health scenario we find ourselves in with the pandemic,” Isabelle Jungton, 28, told Al Jazeera.
“An event this big in Brazil right now makes the situation significantly more chaotic. Football won’t take away the bigger worry that is the pandemic. I support the Brazil team but this really isn’t relevant right now.”
Despite the outcry, not everyone in Brazil is against the tournament taking place.
“I support the tournament. Football was already taking place nationally with very strict health and security protocols, plus the infrastructure in Brazil was ready for the event. This debate whether to host the tournament or not is just political,” Alex Roberto Arno, 56, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s definitely not on the same level as the Euros. The quality also isn’t what you see in the Euros but I’m supporting Brazil and I believe they will win.”
Additional reporting by Chris Goldenbaum in Sao Paulo.