By Our Sports Desk
South America’s soccer federation CONMEBOL said on Monday it would move next month’s Copa America to Brazil, thanking Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for stepping in after original host Argentina pulled out over surging COVID-19 cases.
The surprise decision, which relocates the competition from one South American coronavirus hot spot to another, means the oldest international tournament in the world will kick off as planned on June 13, with the final on July 10. It is a boost for Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who has railed against lockdowns and urged Brazilians to return to normal life.
“The 2021 Copa America will be played in Brazil!” CONMEBOL said in a statement. “The start and finish dates are confirmed. The host cities and the matches will be revealed by CONMEBOL in the coming hours.”
In a separate tweet, CONMEBOL thanked Brazil’s president, who has long minimized the severity of the virus, for his help.
“CONMEBOL thanks president @jairbolsonaro and his team, as well as the Brazilian Football Confederation for opening the country’s doors to what is now the safest sporting event in the world,” it tweeted.
The president’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
More than 450,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Brazil. The country has routinely reported the continent’s highest case numbers and deaths, and currently ranks second highest in the world for both daily reported cases and deaths.
Large protests took place across Brazil on Saturday against Bolsonaro.
Omar Aziz, one of the senators running a high-profile congressional probe into Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, said he did not see any major problems with Brazil hosting the tournament, as long as there were no crowds and the correct safety measures were followed.
But many others in Brazil, where soccer is a national obsession, were outraged by the decision. “The authorities act as if Brazil had as advanced vaccination as in the USA. It will be difficult to cheer for the national team,” prominent journalist Guga Chacra tweeted.
Co-hosting arrangement stymied
The CONMEBOL announcement comes less than 24 hours after Argentina said its outbreak meant it could not longer host.
This year’s Copa America was to be the first featuring joint hosts, but Colombia was removed as co-host on May 20 after a wave of protests demanding social and economic change spread across the country.
CONMEBOL hoped Argentina could then host all 28 games or share them with South American neighbors.
Organizers had been reluctant to call the lucrative tournament. The last Copa America, held in Brazil in 2019, brought in $118 million in revenue.
Although no decision has yet been made on venues, many of the stadiums Brazil built for the 2014 World Cup will likely host matches, with the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro or the Mane Garrincha stadium in the capital Brasilia likely locations for the opening match or final.
The last-minute decision also throws up some complicated questions for the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF). The Brazilian league was not halted for the Copa America and at least 70 league games are scheduled to be played during the month-long tournament.