Sao Paulo (AFP) – Unexpectedly picked to host the Copa America two weeks from kick-off, Brazil sought Tuesday to reassure doubters the tournament would happen, fending off the threats of a Covid-19 surge, political divisions and a court battle.
It didn’t take long for cracks to emerge in organizers’ last-minute plan to switch the South American football championships from coronavirus-battered Argentina to Brazil — itself one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic.
Hours after the South American football confederation, CONMEBOL, made the announcement Monday, thanking Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for “opening his country’s doors,” a top administration official said the decision wasn’t a done deal.
“There’s nothing final. I want to make that clear,” said Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Luiz Eduardo Ramos.
The far-right president himself appeared to contradict that Tuesday, however.
“The matter is closed,” he said.
“As far as my ministers and I are concerned… it’s a done deal. We’re holding” the tournament.
It is unclear exactly what conditions the matches will be held under, and whether fans will be allowed to attend.
CONMEBOL would reportedly like to allow some fans, at least for the final. Brazilian officials, including Vice President Hamilton Mourao, have said they are against.
The political uncertainty spilled over well beyond Bolsonaro’s administration.
CONMEBOL has yet to announce the host cities for the June 13-July 10 championships — though it had promised to do so within “hours.”
At least five of Brazil’s 27 states have said they will not host matches because of the pandemic.
Opposition politicians meanwhile petitioned the Supreme Court to block the tournament, saying it would not be safe.
They included the Workers’ Party (PT) of leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who currently leads Bolsonaro in the polls for Brazil’s October 2022 presidential elections.
– ‘Insanity’ –
It has been an uphill battle to make the Copa America, the world’s oldest running international football tournament, happen this year.
Already delayed by 12 months because of the pandemic, it was supposed to be co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina.
But CONMEBOL nixed the former on May 20 because of violent anti-government protests, and the latter on Sunday because of a surge of Covid-19.
Brazil, which hosted in 2019, has some advantages: a large economy, experience organizing big events and stadiums left over from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
But it is also the country with the second-highest Covid-19 death toll worldwide after the United States: more than 460,000.
The coronavirus curve in Brazil has declined recently, from a weekly average of more than 3,000 deaths a day in April to about 1,800.
But experts say state and local officials lifted restrictions too soon, with just 10.5 percent of Brazil’s 212 million people fully vaccinated.
They warn rising infections and hospital occupancy rates indicate a new surge is coming, fueled by the spread of new variants.
“It’s impossible to describe the insanity of trying to hold an event of this magnitude here now,” said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez.
“The worst phases (of the pandemic in Brazil) in 2020 were three to four times smaller than what we’re seeing today. We have this false sense that things have gotten better. The reality is, we’re still in a terrible phase of very rapid spread,” he told AFP.
– Calling on Neymar –
The decision has been swept up in politics in a Brazil deeply polarized by Bolsonaro.
It came two days after the president faced the first mass protests of the pandemic, as thousands of Brazilians outraged over his Covid-19 denialism took to the streets in cities across the country.
He also faces a Senate investigation into his government’s controversial handling of the pandemic, including fighting lockdowns and refusing offers of vaccines.
The rapporteur of that commission, Senator Renan Calheiros, called on none other than football superstar Neymar to intervene.
“Neymar, I want to have a word with you: don’t agree to this Copa America in Brazil,” he told the Paris Saint-Germain striker.
“It’s not the championship we need to be playing. We need to be in the championship of vaccines.”