OPINION: How will Brazil organize an America Cup in the midst of the pandemic?

Following request of Brazilian Soccer Confederation, Jair Bolsonaro's government agreed to hold tournament in less than 2 weeks, despite criticism in country and the increase of virus cases

12:14 . 16/06/2021 Wednesday
File photo

File photo

The CONMEBOL America Cup 2021 was scheduled to be jointly organized by Colombia and Argentina. However, both countries gave up the possibility of hosting for different reasons. In the case of Colombia, the social situation cut off the possibility of a sporting event of such magnitude taking place there.

In Argentina, the coronavirus pandemic is at its worst, so the Government led by Alberto Fernández had to back down and also decided not to receive the South American football delegations.

With this bleak outlook, the South American Football Confederation [CONMEBOL] found itself on Sunday, May 30, without having anyone to turn to. Chile's proposal was not enough, because they offered a shared venue and not the total organization of the event. They came to think of the United States (and even Israel) to host the competition, but logistics, in times of COVID-19, became impossible. Especially if we take into account that there were less than 15 days until the start of the America Cup, which will be played between June 13 and July 10.

The following Monday, Conmebol called an emergency meeting with the federations of all participating countries. It was the last chance. Immediately, all eyes turned to Rogerio Caboclo, president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), who shortly after was denounced for sexual and moral harassment, for which he was removed from his role.

Under normal conditions, a Brazilian candidacy would be logical, since that country was the last host of the America Cup in 2019, and it is the country that has the most stadiums in better conditions. However, the third wave of coronavirus infections is imminent and, according to specialists, will have its peak in the second half of June.

Despite the 479,515 deaths from COVID in Brazil, Caboclo agreed to communicate with the Federal Government to discuss the possibility. To the surprise of many, Jair Bolsonaro promised to talk with his ministers but gave an initial "green light" that surprised those present in the meeting. Hours later, Conmebol thanked the Brazilian president and the CBF for "opening the doors to the safest sports tournament in the world."

In minutes, the news reverberated around the world. Shortly before the announcement, the streets of several Brazilian cities had been invaded by crowds who repudiated Bolsonaro's actions. In addition, the situation of the pandemic, which was within certain stability in Brazil, became complicated again augment social chaos.

But there was no turning back. The improvised organizing committee made up of the trident Conmebol, CBF and the Government began to delineate the possible venues. The first thing that was defined is that the Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasilia, remodeled in 2013 for the Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup, would be the scene of the opening, on June 13.

For the final of the tournament, they thought of the mythical Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. The rest of the venues could be in the northeast of the country even Manaus, in the Amazon, where have experienced one of the worst health crises due to COVID-19.

The organization had to listen to the resounding refusals of the governors and mayors of Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul state), Recife (Pernambuco state), and Natal (Rio Grande do Norte state). However, it received the approval of Cuiabá (Mato Grosso), Salvador (Bahia) and Goiania (Goias). "We will not oppose it if the CBF designates Sao Paulo as its headquarters," said Joao Doria, Sao Paulo governor, and Bolsonaro's political enemy.

In addition to surprise, Doria's statement caused a lot of rejection in the main Brazilian state. Shortly after, the president reversed his speech. "After extensive consultation with the entire health team about the event, we decided that receiving the matches would be a bad sign since our energies have to be put on stopping the virus," explained Doria.

Anyway, the clarification was not necessary, because Sao Paulo did not enter into the plans of the organizing heads. During the afternoon of Tuesday, June 1, it was Bolsonaro himself who was in charge of spreading that the America Cup would be held in the central-west region with venues in Cuiaba, Goiania, and Brasilia. The only city that does not belong to the axis and that will also be part of the tournament is Rio de Janeiro.

According to the improvised management of the continental event, centralizing the competition in one region helps to form "a health bubble" and prevents delegations from suffering long trip transfers. The other reason, unofficial, is that the governors of the four seats maintain a good relationship with President Bolsonaro.

While waiting for the imminent third wave of infections, the four cities-headquarters added register 989,536 cases of COVID-19 and are almost at the limit of their hospital capacity. The most extreme case is Rio de Janeiro, which has 92% of the beds destined for COVID-19 cases occupied. To try to protect themselves from a catastrophe, the governors and mayors involved in the organization demanded that Conmebol and the Brazilian Government "that the sanitary protocols against COVID-19 be respected as is done in the first and second division of local professional football."

Given the guarantees, the first match of the contest between Brazil and Venezuela will take place at the Mané Garrincha stadium, in Brasilia. "Conmebol has already sent us the schedule and they assured us that all sanitary measures will be met, so we see no problems in receiving the delegations," said Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the Federal District and one of Bolsonaro's main allies. In addition, in Brasilia, there is also the Planalto Palace, the seat of the Brazilian government.

Beyond health protocols, the authorities are preparing security measures to contain social protests. The federal capital of Brazilians is usually one of the main venues for demonstrations for and against the Government. Even shortly after the designation of Brasilia as the venue, a group of students approached the Mane Garrincha stadium to show their rejection of the Cup. “Let's do like Colombia. We don't want a Cup, we want vaccines,” said one of the banners.

On the other hand, members of the opposition to Bolsonaro are organizing a national mobilization for June 19, which set off the alarms in all the host cities.

Over 200 kilometers from Brasilia is Goiania, capital of the state of Goias, which became the great surprise of the roster that the tournament will receive. Unlike the rest of the venues, the Goiana capital did not host matches from the 2014 World Cup or the last America Cup in 2019. However, the city hosted the under-17 delegations that played the World Cup in that category in Brazil in the same 2019.

Located in the heart of the central-west region, Goiania will host five games of the group stage and two in the quarterfinals. All will be played at the Pedro Ludovico Teixeira Olympic Stadium, which is not usually used by the two most popular teams in the city, Goias Esporte Clube (from Serie B that is local in Serra Dourada) and Atletico Goianiense (from Serie A and that plays at Antonio Accioly stadium).

Both the governor of Goias, Ronaldo Caiado, an ally of Bolsonaro -although they had some disputes-, and the mayor of Goiania, Rogerio Cruz, were in favor of holding the contest in their land. However, the State Secretary of Health, Ismael Alexandrino, warned: “We had to discuss it a lot, because the delegations that will arrive in Goias are foreign, which could serve as a transit for new virus variants. We have noticed several outbreaks of COVID-19 in the last two weeks and that is worrying."

“The mayor and the governor never considered us to decide if this cup could be played here. The truth is that there is a lack of medicines and it is not just about complying with protocols or playing without an audience, because the delegations are huge and different crowds are surely going to be generated. It is a very desperate situation since we found out that the America Cup would come to our state,” warned the doctor Carolina de Araujo Andrade, who specializes in infections. Meanwhile, the occupancy in Goias hospitals reaches 89% and in the capital, Goiania, it climbed to 83%.

The capital of Mato Grosso, Cuiaba, has experience in hosting international competitions. Its modern stadium, Arena Pantanal, was specially built for the 2014 World Cup. It is currently used by Cuiaba Esporte Clube, which is contesting the Serie A of the Brazilian Championship for the first time in its history and is managed by brothers Cristiano and Alessandro Dresch, entrepreneurs from the rubber industry, who together with his father, Aron Dresch (president of the Matogrossense Football Federation), contributed to the city being chosen as one of the venues for the America Cup.

Unlike the cases of Goiania and Brasilia, the mayor of Cuiaba does not agree with the holding of the event but had to give in to pressure from the governor of Mato Grosso, Mauro Mendes, of the Democratic Party, one of the main cards of Bolsonaro heading for the 2022 presidential elections

“The CBF guaranteed us that we will not have an audience at the games, that all sanitary requirements will be met, and, furthermore, we will not have to spend a penny. So why aren't we going to be part of this tournament that will show Mato Grosso to the world? ”Mendes explained.

However, Emanuel Pinheiro, mayor of Cuiaba, disagrees with Mendes. “I stated that this is not the time for America Cup, especially out of respect for the thousands of victims of COVID-19 in our state and those who still suffer from the virus. We would have to put all our energies in prevention, in obtaining vaccines and immunizing all our people," said the one who runs a city where the occupation of Intensive Care Units (ICU) has already exceeded 87%.

Because the Brazilian Championship and the Brazil Cup will not interrupt their march during the America Cup, Flamengo and Fluminense, the teams from Rio de Janeiro that are usually local to the Maracana stadium, are looking for makeshift “homes” in the interior of the state, while the mythical venue is occupied by the subcontinental contest, although only the final will be played there. Without a doubt, it will be Botafogo, another of the Rio de Janeiro clubs, the most affected. Nilton Santos, their stadium, will host five games from the group stage, one from the quarter-finals, and one more from the semifinals.

Despite the fact that the mayor of the ‘Marvelous City’, Eduardo Paes, first refused to be part of the competition, a meeting with the state governor, Claudio Castro, changed everything. "If Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana games are played here, and if the city is open to tourism, I do not understand what would be the reason for refusing to host the America Cup, which has better security protocols," justified the governor.

It should be noted that the scientific committees of the city and the state of Rio de Janeiro that were created exclusively to combat COVID-19, said they were not consulted before the decision. “Nobody asked us anything. In my opinion, an event of this magnitude only contributes to increasing the risk of contagion in the city,” warned Alberto Chebabo, vice president of the Brazilian Society of Infectology and member of the Scientific Committee of the Mayor's Office of Rio de Janeiro. "We will have foreign delegations, international press, and members of the organization circulating from here to there," added the specialist.

The number of deaths from coronavirus in the state of Rio de Janeiro is 52,094, the second-worst national record behind Sao Paulo (115,960). In the capital of Rio de Janeiro, the occupation of the hospitals exceeds 92%. “Until a few days ago we were all confined and today they bring the America Cup to our city. The example they give people is terrible because it seems that it is time to relax, to have a party when we know that it is the opposite, ” protested María Rita Lopes dos Santos, a university professor who lives in Rio de Janeiro and has already contracted COVID-19 the last year.

The emergency call to Bolsonaro and the positive response of the Brazilian president avoided losses of more than 100,000,000 dollars to Conmebol. The South American soccer entity, for its part, assured that its motivation is not economic. “We will have great economic losses, but that is not the point. Our goal is that the South American teams do not lose competitiveness in the face of the Qatar World Cup in 2022,” said the confederation in an official statement.

"The realization of this tournament found an inexplicable and subjective opposition, based on preconceptions and not on real data," they added.

Some footballers who act in Brazilian football and will play the America Cup, such as Uruguayans Matias Viña (who plays in Palmeiras) and Giorgian De Arrascaeta (Flamengo), expressed their concern about playing in a country with 479,515 deaths from the pandemic.

“Personally, I think they should suspend it. We know how the situation is. But if we have to play it, we will have to do it," said Viña. “There are few countries in the world that do not experience this complicated situation, and Brazil is not one of them. This is not the right time to hold the America Cup here, ” said De Arrascaeta, who a few days ago tested positive for coronavirus and will remain isolated in a hotel in Montevideo, where he was with his team.

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