The Copa America at all costs

The Supreme Court of Brazil is due to rule this Thursday on two appeals filed against the organization of the Copa America in the country. Three days before the opening match, FRANCE 24 looks back on the twists and turns surrounding this controversial event.

The Copa America, the tournament for South America’s international football teams, has seen a lot in its 105-year history.

The 1918 version in Rio was postponed for a year due to a Spanish flu epidemic. In the 1970s, when dictators ruled the continent, the competition was almost forgotten. Now a global health crisis and politics have brought the 2021 version to the brink of a gamer revolt.

A controversy editing

This 47th edition of the Copa is an additional edition, stuck in the calendar, ironically, to take advantage of the passage from odd years to even years. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, it was originally slated for 2020. To some players, that seemed too much. There had been Copas in 2015 and 2019, and an edition celebrating the centenary of the tournament in 2016. Did he really need another?

As this was an additional edition, the rights to host the competition were up for grabs. A large row leads to an unsightly compromise. Argentina and Colombia both wanted to host the Copa, so they could both have it. It was the first time that the Copa was scheduled to be staged in two countries – the logistical problems in this case compounded by the fact that the two nations are at opposite ends of a large land mass.

Then a wave of social unrest forced Colombia to withdraw. And, two weeks before kick-off, Argentina did the same. With the onset of winter, the pandemic is currently at its peak in Argentina. Public opinion has clearly turned against the Copa and Argentina withdrew.

Bolsonaro Cup

The unlikely savior is Brazil, who stepped in at the last minute. But the pandemic has reached alarming levels there. Brazil’s death toll has now reached 477,000 and will inevitably hit the gruesome half-million mark during the competition.

Discontent was rumbling among footballers on the continent. And with their country as the new host, attention has turned to the Brazil national team. They were extremely unhappy with the whole thing – including the fact that they had never been consulted. Rodrigo Caboclo, the president of the Brazilian Football Association, was with the players the day before the shocking announcement of Brazil’s arrival as host, but had made no mention of it.

The Selecao‘s short-lived mutiny

The Brazilian players had three grievances. They were unhappy with Caboclo, unhappy that the Copa is taking place in the midst of a pandemic and unhappy that it continues as the continent falls behind with its marathon World Cup qualifying campaign.

Europe-based players – almost all of them – are forgoing their vacations to make the national team. They would rather do it for something worthwhile, like qualifying for the World Cup, rather than this controversial, hastily cobbled together Copa.

On Friday, those close to the Brazilian camp said the players would boycott the tournament – and use their influence to encourage players from other national teams to do the same. Monday the story was different. There would be no boycott, but they would play the Copa under protest. And on Tuesday night, after beating Paraguay in World Cup qualifying, that’s the position they took.

The weakening of the players’ position therefore came as no surprise. They had been appeased in part by the fact that Rodrigo Caboclo is no longer, at least temporarily, at the head of the football association. Formally accused of sexually and morally harassing an employee, he was forced to resign for a period of time.

In addition, the players knew they were sailing in dangerous waters. “At no time did we want to have this political discussion,” they said in their statement. But it is an impossible dream. This copa is intensely political. He is strongly linked to the figure of the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation, wanted to personally thank Bolsonaro for opening his country’s doors to the Copa. And making sure the event unfolds perfectly aligns perfectly with Bolsonaro’s stance on the pandemic – that the economy should be open as usual. The Brazilian players were therefore not only facing their federation and the authorities of continental football. They were also on the verge of clashing with their president. And in the right-wing world of Brazilian football, many of them are, or at least have been, Bolsonaro supporters.

Tensions and uncertainties

Their statement therefore appeared half-hearted, affirming their opposition to the Copa but not going into details of their motivations – simply mentioning humanitarian and professional concerns. It does not please anyone. Many were expecting something stronger, while Bolsonaro supporters are barely placed by the players saying this Copa should not go.

From the start of the action on Sunday, all of these questions can be forgotten. But this time it could be different. The Copa 2021 is really a very strange competition. The first phase consists of two groups of five – and it will take more than two weeks to eliminate one team per group. In other words, there is little action to note until closing week in early July. Until then, Brazilian players could find themselves caught between two political fires.

Originally posted on France24

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