Organising an international football tournament is difficult at the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic, the process can become more chastening, as CONMEBOL – the governing body of South American football – has come to realise.
Initially, the 47th edition of the Copa América was due to take place in the summer of 2020. However, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the postponement of the European Championship, CONMEBOL took the decision to delay the South American equivalent by a year.
As a result, the 2021 Copa América was scheduled to run between 12 June and 10 July in Argentina and Colombia, with the nations selected as co-hosts in 2019.
However, a little over a month before the competition was due to begin, cracks appeared in CONMEBOL’s plans.
On 20 May, Colombia was removed as co-host due to ongoing protests against the nation’s president, Ivan Duque. Duque, the youngest president in Colombian history, has been under siege since April, with Colombians remonstrating against increased taxes, corruption, and proposed healthcare reforms.
By the end of the month, Argentina was also stripped of its right to co-host the tournament, although on this occasion due to rising Covid-19 infection rates. On 31 May, there were 73.2 active cases of the coronavirus per 100,000 people in Argentina.
The fallout from CONMEBOL’s decision was immediate, with former Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero blasting the governing body’s choice to take the tournament away from Argentina.
“We have to play it, there is no time because we already lost last year,” Aguero told reporters in Barcelona, “there was a year to find a place where it could be done and what could happen. Every month, two months everything changes.”
Aguero, who is set to make his 100th appearance for Argentina at the upcoming tournament, makes a valid point. CONMEBOL has had fifteen months to prepare for the competition, relocating the Copa América with a fortnight to spare is unacceptable.
Now, the decision to remove Colombia and Argentina as hosts makes sense (timing of the decisions to do so aside). Colombia is in a state of political turmoil; Argentina is in the midst of a public health crisis.
CONMEBOL, then, has shown that it can be influenced by two external factors: political unrest and the pandemic.
Neymar, I want to tell you something: you shouldn’t agree with the holding of this Copa America in Brazil!
– Otto Alencar, Brazilian senator
However, that framework only makes the decision to hand the tournament to Brazil all the more puzzling.
Brazil remains a hotspot for the coronavirus – with the nation averaging 29 cases per 100,000 people at the start of June. Since the crisis began, 17 million cases have been recorded in Brazil – in addition to half a million related deaths.
Last week, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said: “As far as it is up to me, and all the ministers, including the health minister, it is all decided. From the beginning I have said about the pandemic: I regret the deaths, but we have to live.”
Meanwhile, Senator Otto Alencar – a member of the Brazilian opposition – called on Neymar to rally against CONMEBOL’s decision.
“Neymar, I want to tell you something: you shouldn’t agree with the holding of this Copa America in Brazil! Don’t agree to this. It is not this championship that we need to now compete in. We need to compete in the vaccination championship,” he said.
Aside from Brazil’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus pandemic, the nation is also experiencing political unrest.
Tens of thousands of protestors have poured onto Brazilian streets in recent days, rallying against Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. Demonstrators turned out in more than 200 towns and cities on Saturday 29 May, with Silvia de Mendonça, a civil rights activist, calling Brazil’s government “genocidal”.
Thus, Brazil passes neither of CONMEBOL’s suitability tests.
Bolsonaro’s hands-off approach to the pandemic has allowed Covid-19 to spread through Brazil with disastrous consequences. Protests have erupted as a result.
It is difficult to think of a less suitable host than Brazil, CONMEBOL has made a huge error. Cancel the Copa América, before something terrible happens.