In a baffling decision, CONMEBOL announced Monday that the Copa América will now be played in Brazil, which is currently bracing for a third coronavirus wave, after Argentina was stripped of hosting duties due to its own pandemic surge.
Argentina was to have co-hosted the June 13-July 10 football spectacle with Colombia, which was itself disqualified by football federation CONMEBOL over violent social unrest.
With two weeks to kick-off, the federation tweeted Monday that "The CONMEBOL Copa América 2021 will be played in Brazil!" a day after it cancelled Argentina's hosting of the event "in view of the current circumstances."
“The oldest tournament of national teams in the world will make the entire continent shake,” CONMEBOL said on its official Twitter account.
Originally scheduled for last year, the Argentina-Colombia Copa, to be played without fans, was postponed by 12 months due to the coronavirus epidemic. It would have been the first time in its history that the tournament was co-hosted by two countries.
New host Brazil is one of the countries in the world worst affected by the coronavirus outbreak, with the second-highest death toll of over 460,000 so far and more than 16.5 million cases.
The Fiocruz research institute recently warned of a new surge in the pandemic in the country already hard hit by a more infectious new strain, and where many people have died due to a shortage of hospital beds and oxygen.
Despite the warning, CONMEBOL has decided to move the tournament – which kicks off in just two weeks – to Brazil nevertheless.
Brazil, which has the second-most Covid-19 deaths and third-most cases in the world, is clearly not a risk-free setting to host the matches. But the local league kicked off its new season last weekend without fans in the stands, and Brazil has few if any restrictions to enter the country beyond a negative PCR test. Restrictions are imposed on a local level with the federal government largely advocating for a return to normality despite the sky-high infection and death rates.
CONMEBOL thanked Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the local soccer association for “opening the doors to the country for what is the safest sports event in the world.”
Ten days ago, the tournament lost a co-host in Colombia, which had its hosting rights stripped by CONMEBOL amid social unrest that has now entered its fifth week and claimed dozens of lives.
This left Argentina as the sole host, but on Sunday, CONMEBOL also disqualified it amid a record surge that has seen a daily death toll of about 500 on average, and between 21,000 and 40,000 new cases per day. The country has had more than 77,000 deaths in the pandemic to date and nearly 3.8 million infections.
On May 22, Argentina entered a nine-day lockdown in the hopes of flattening the infection curve ahead of the sports event.
The country had presented a "strict protocol" to CONMEBOL for hosting the tournament, which involved preparing additional stadiums and reducing the size of each team's delegation.
But a poll last week found that 70 percent of citizens believed the country should withdraw, and CONMEBOL agreed.
"CONMEBOL informs that in view of the current circumstances it has decided to suspend the organization of the Copa América in Argentina," the governing body tweeted late Sunday night.
President Alberto Fernandez said he had asked CONMEBOL for "time" until Monday to analyse the health situation, but that the country was "on epidemiological alert."
Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero added that "with so many cases we could not carry out an organisation of these characteristics. Argentina had a commitment that we tried at all times to meet, but the epidemiological reality prevented it."
In Brazil, opposition congressman Marcelo Freixo was among the first to denounce the latest move.
"Argentina refused the Copa América because of the worsening pandemic. There, the average of deaths in the last seven days was 470 people... Here, it’s 1,844. FOUR TIMES MORE. This is a picture of a murderous government," she wrote, referring to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration.
Sports commentator Alexandre Lozetti, of TV Globo quipped on the same platform: "Suggestions for a mascot for the Copa América in Brazil? How about Covidinho ("Little Covid")?"
Brazil hosted the last Copa América, in 2019, and won it.
It has the best infrastructure in the region for hosting the Copa, with several modern stadiums left over from the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
CONMEBOL is expected to announce venues and dates for the matches in the coming hours. Despite announcing the decision to move the tournament to Brazil, the governing body's authorities have yet to release any further details.