Copa America is as uncertain as ever as pandemic continues in South America

There are eight weeks to go before the kick off of the Copa America — if it kicks off. The tournament is being co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia, and doubts emerged on Thursday night in a radio interview given by the president of Argentina, Alberto Fernandez.

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“I don’t want to frustrate the spectacle which is the Copa America, ” he said. “What I want is for us to be very sensible, very careful” — a reference to the coronavirus pandemic, which is currently at its worst in South America.

The death toll in Brazil is rising alarmingly, and the Brazilian variant, more easily transmissible and more dangerous to younger people, would appear to be worsening the situation in both Argentina and Colombia.

“We have time ahead to see how things develop,” continued Fernandez, “and to see how we can bring the problem under control.”

On Thursday his government announced a curfew in the greater Buenos Aires area. On Friday they surprised with a sudden decree, stating that football matches in the region could kick off no later than 6 p.m. — having an effect on the weekend’s matches in the Argentine first division, and, it would seem, next week’s games when the group phase gets going in the Copa Libertadores.

Colombia’s sports minister Ernesto Lucena insisted that the Copa will go ahead as planned. But there are problems in his country, too. Colombia is currently banning the entry of planes from Brazil, even charter flights carrying sports teams. And Brazil will be playing their group games in Colombia.

Moreover, almost every South American national team can count on players who are based in Brazil. It is in the hope of resolving this type of problem that CONMEBOL, the continental football federation, recently announced that it will be receiving 50,000 doses of vaccine in order to protect top level players against coronavirus. This is controversial; to some, it is a necessary step in view of the risks being run by footballers and their families, but others see this as queue jumping of dubious ethics in a region where the scarcity of vaccines is a problem.

From CONMEBOL’s point of view, a vaccination programme is seen as an ally in ensuring that a cluttered calendar can go ahead as planned. But if the players can all be vaccinated, what about potential supporters?

CONMEBOL made a big loss last year — when the Copa America was originally scheduled to take place — and is anxious to make amends in 2021. It hopes that stadiums in the Copa America can be filled to 30% of their capacity — and it is highly possible that this forms the backdrop to the doubts expressed by Fernandez.

In almost all of the continent, including Argentina and Colombia, football has been played behind closed doors since the pandemic struck. The governments in these countries are understandably reluctant to make an exception for the Copa America. If some fans are able to attend matches during the tournament, it will strengthen the lobby for a return to the stadiums in the domestic season. Looking at the health statistics, this would seem to be very unwise.

It is probably significant, then, that Lucena gave his view that the Copa will go ahead “with or without fans.” The strong possibility, then, is that the 2021 Copa America will go ahead. Football has huge political strength in South America.

But Argentina’s president is using his political power as a bargaining tool. He is making the point that the Copa will take place on his terms, which are unlikely to include the presence of fans inside the stadiums.

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