When Covid-19 overwhelmed Argentina too badly to host the South American football championships, officials decided to move the tournament to pandemic-battered Brazil of all places, drawing criticism from epidemiologists and a flurry of jokes.
Already forced to delay the Copa America by a year, organizers are struggling to pull off the world’s oldest running international football competition in a region still reeling from Covid-19 and — in the case of original co-hosts Colombia — violent unrest.
With its huge economy and wealth of stadiums from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Brazil looked in some ways like a good last-minute fix after officials pulled the plug Sunday on would-be hosts Argentina two weeks from kickoff on June 13.
But there is one glaring problem with Monday’s announcement that Brazil would step in: Covid-19 is devastating the country, where the death toll stands at more than 460,000, second only to the United States.
And experts warn a third wave is coming.
“An event of that size moves countless people, even if the matches are held in empty stadiums. And moving people increases the spread of the virus. It’s going to contribute to a new flare-up,” said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez, of Brasilia’s pandemic response committee.
“The tournament should have been canceled, full stop,” he told AFP.
‘Championship of death’
The news quickly turned political in a Brazil deeply divided over far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s unorthodox pandemic response.
Bolsonaro has fought lockdowns, snubbed face masks and refused offers of vaccines, instead touting ineffective medications such as chloroquine against Covid-19.
When the South American Football Confederation, Conmebol, thanked him for “opening his country’s doors” to the tournament, critics pounced.
It will be the “championship of death,” said Senator Renan Calheiros, rapporteur of a Senate commission investigating accusations of criminal negligence in the government’s pandemic management.
“Offers of vaccines sat gathering mold in officials’ drawers, but the tournament got a speedy OK. Ridiculous,” he wrote on Twitter.
The deputy chair of the investigative commission, opposition Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, said the head of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), Rogerio Caboclo, should be called to testify on “what safety measures have been planned to guarantee Brazilians’ safety” during the tournament.
Another opposition lawmaker, Congressman Julio Delgado, vowed to go to the Supreme Court to block the tournament.
At least three governors in states tipped as likely hosts of matches have already said they would refuse because of the health situation.
But Vice President Hamilton Mourao argued there would be less risk holding the tournament in Brazil than Argentina.
Mascot: ‘Little Covid’
Football-mad Brazil has mostly been holding matches without fans, though several hundred were allowed in for the Copa Libertadores final in Rio de Janeiro in January.
The Copa America was due to be held in empty stadiums if Argentina and Colombia had hosted. But speculation swirled that Conmebol would try to hold at least the final with fans present in Brazil.
The Covid-19 curve in Brazil has declined recently, from a weekly average of more than 3,000 deaths a day in April to about 1,800 last week.
But the country remains one of those hit hardest. Experts say state and local officials lifted restrictions too soon, with just 11 percent of Brazil’s 212 million people fully vaccinated.
They warn rising infections and hospital occupancy rates indicate a new surge is coming.
Hosting the Copa America now is “reckless,” said epidemiologist Pedro Hallal of the Federal University of Pelotas.
“Many other countries… have the pandemic much more under control. It’s hard to understand where this decision came from,” he said.
Social media wits were quick to upload a flood of jokes.
“Suggestions for the Copa America mascot? How about ‘Little Covid’?” quipped sports commentator Alexandre Lozetti on Twitter.
“Little Chloroquine” was also popular, as well as a proposal to rename the tournament the “Cepa America” — the “America variant.”
“I don’t think we should be holding such a big sporting event here now. It’s very risky,” said businessman Guilherme Beserra da Silva in Sao Paulo.
“It’s good for the economy, but Covid cases are going to increase for sure. I love football, but I’m against this.”