Copa America opens in Brazil against backdrop of COVID crisis

Long-delayed football tournament comes amid still-surging pandemic in Brazil, which has registered more than 486,000 deaths.

The Brazilian and Venezuelan teams line up during the national anthems before the opening match of Copa America, in Brasilia on June 13 [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

After uncertainty over what country would host it, a Brazilian Supreme Court hearing about its possible postponement, and coronavirus infections reported by three teams, the long-delayed Copa America football tournament has opened in Brazil’s capital.

Hosts Brazil opened the international contest against Venezuela at 6:00pm local time (2100 GMT) on Sunday in an empty Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia.

The opening match comes just days after local health authorities reported that Venezuelan players and staff had tested positive for COVID-19, which has ravaged Brazil and led to more than 486,000 deaths.

In all, 13 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation tested positive for the virus, including coaching staff, said the South American football confederation, CONMEBOL.

Bolivia later said three of its players and a coach had also tested positive and were in isolation ahead of their team’s debut on Monday against Paraguay. On Sunday, two members of the Colombian delegation tested positive, as well.

Copa America has been plagued by uncertainty, as the tournament was delayed 12 months due to the pandemic and original co-hosts Colombia and Argentina were forced to withdraw over ongoing social unrest in the former, and surging COVID-19 infections in the latter.

CONMEBOL announced late last month that Brazil would host the tournament, raising renewed questions and concerns about whether the event would worsen the South American nation’s ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, said Brazil is expected to hit the sombre milestone of half a million coronavirus deaths either during or immediately after the tournament.

The country has reported more than 486,000 deaths and over 17.3 million cases to date, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University – and health experts have warned that another wave of the pandemic is possible.

Copa America also comes amid an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into how far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has handled the pandemic, Yanakiew said.

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro had defended hosting the tournament [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

“Every day in the inquiry in Congress, people are discussing about why the government downplayed the virus. The president himself doesn’t wear masks, holds rallies, has crowds, says that masks aren’t necessary, says that social distancing isn’t necessary. This is the backdrop for this sports event,” she said.

Bolsonaro, a coronavirus sceptic who was fined $108 by Sao Paulo state on Saturday for not wearing a mask during a motorcycle rally with many of his supporters, had insisted that Copa America should go ahead.

“There are vested interests in making the Copa America happen,” sociologist Rodrigo Moreira of Fluminense Federal University told the AFP news agency.

“The government wants to show the country is ready to host it, when in reality it’s not. And [organisers] want to guarantee their profits” from TV rights and sponsorship deals, Moreira said.

Epidemiologists, staffers in the coronavirus parliamentary inquiry, as well as some players and coaches, had raised concerns about Brazil hosting the tournament.

The country’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled Copa America could go ahead, however, but the justices ordered authorities to take additional safety measures.

“It falls to [state governors and mayors] to set the appropriate health protocols and ensure they are respected in order to avoid a ‘Copavirus’, with new infections and the emergence of new variants,” wrote Justice Carmen Lucia in her ruling.

Protesters hold a sign reading ‘Bolsonaro out’ during a protest against the Copa America outside the Mane Garrincha stadium, where the tournament’s opening match between Brazil and Venezuela will take place, in Brasilia, on June 13 [Sergio Lima/AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies