At least eight players from the Venezuelan national football team have tested positive for Covid-19, Brazil's health minister confirmed Saturday, less than 24 hours before they play the opening match of the Copa América against hosts Brazil.
Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga told a press conference that eight Venezuelan players and four coaches had tested positive Friday, shortly after arriving in Brazil.
"They're all fine. They're all isolated in their hotel, along with those who had contact with them," he said.
The South American football confederation, CONMEBOL, later updated the total, saying 13 members of the Venezuelan delegation had tested positive.
Captain Tomás Rincón revealed on Instagram that he was one of them. "I deeply regret not being able to represent my country," he posted.
Meanwhile, three Bolivian players and a member of the team's technical staff tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of their Copa debut on Monday against Paraguay, the Bolivia football federation said late Saturday, adding that all were in isolation.
It was the latest bad news for the controversial, pandemic-battered South American championships, which kick off Sunday when Brazil play Venezuela in Brasilia.
The outbreak is unlikely to force the cancellation of any matches.
CONMEBOL said Friday it would allow teams unlimited substitutions for players who are ruled out because of positive Covid-19 results or contact with infected people.
Venezuela said it had called up 15 new players as emergency replacements.
However, the infections add to the headaches of organisers already facing sponsor pullouts and a flurry of criticism over the decision to press ahead with the tournament despite the pandemic.
Brazil coach Tite said he regretted that the five-time world champions – already heavy favourites – would be facing a weakened Venezuela.
"It's a shame. I would have liked it to be a match between equals," he told journalists before Brazil's last pre-tournament practice.
He reiterated what he called his "direct criticism" of organisers for insisting the tournament take place.
Osnei Okumoto, head of the Brasilia City Health Department, told CNN Brasil that the health department was tracing everyone the infected people had been in contact with and would test the positive samples to determine which strain of the coronavirus they were carrying.
Already hit hard by a local variant of the virus, the "Gamma" strain, Brazil has been nervously eyeing the "Delta" strain that emerged in India.
It has reported several imported cases, but there is no confirmation of local transmission so far.
Originally scheduled for 2020, the Copa América, the world's oldest international football tournament, was delayed 12 months by the pandemic.
The tournament nearly had to be called off again after losing original co-hosts Argentina and Colombia at the last minute because of a surge of Covid-19 in the former and violent anti-government protests in the latter.
The Copa was controversially saved when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro gave his blessing for Brazil to stand in as hosts.
Epidemiologists warn the event could exacerbate a Covid-19 outbreak that has already claimed nearly 485,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.
Matches will be held in empty stadiums, including the July 10 final in Rio de Janeiro.
Organisers are facing a backlash.
Several Copa América sponsors – Mastercard, beer giant Ambev and alcoholic beverage company Diageo – said this week they were pulling their branding from the tournament.
There are plans for a protest in Brasilia on opening day.
Many players and coaches have criticised the event, including Uruguay's Luis Suárez, Argentina's Sergio Agüero and the entire Brazilian national team.
Two opposition parties and a labour union filed lawsuits to block the tournament on health grounds. But Brazil's Supreme Court on Thursday ruled it could go ahead – though it ordered the government to submit an extensive health protocol.
The 10 teams will undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing every 48 hours. Their movements will be restricted, and they will travel between the four host cities on chartered flights.
However, Brazil's health ministry backed down from plans to require all players, coaches and staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19, saying there was not enough time.
Normally football-mad Brazil is ambivalent about hosting.
"We're living a paradox. We want that feeling of the Copa América, but also want to protect people's lives," 29-year-old civil servant Murilo Monteiro told AFP in Brasilia.