SAO PAULO – Brazil will host Copa America for the second consecutive time after Colombia and Argentina were stripped of hosting rights for the tournament, prompting local health experts to criticize the decision to hold the troubled event in one of the countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alejandro Domínguez, the president of South American soccer body CONMEBOL, announced the move on Monday hours after Argentina was ruled out amid an increase in COVID-19 cases in the country. Colombia was removed as co-host on May 20 as street protests against President Iván Duque rocked the nation.
CONMEBOL added that the tournament is confirmed to take place between June 13 and July 10. Brazil is the defending champion, winning the competition in 2019 as hosts. The Brazilian soccer confederation did not respond a request for comment from The Associated Press.
“The host cities and the fixtures will be confirmed by CONMEBOL within hours. The oldest international tournament in the world will make the whole continent cheer!” the South American body said.
“CONMEBOL thanks (Brazil) President Jair Bolsonaro and his team, and also the Brazilian soccer confederation for opening the doors of this country for the safest sporting event in the world today. South America will shine in Brazil with all its stars," the soccer body said.
Dominguez also thanked the Brazilian president, who has challenged social distancing restrictions and called for a return to normal life despite a slow vaccine rollout. Less than 11% of the Brazilian population has been fully vaccinated against the virus, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.
The president’s handling of the pandemic response is under investigation by a Brazilian senate inquiry. On Saturday thousands of Brazilians took the streets to protest against his administration.
“The Brazilian government showed quickness and decision making skills in a moment that is fundamental for South American soccer,” Domínguez said. He added Brazil “lives in a moment of stability, has a proven infrastructure and accumulated recent experience to organize a tournament of this magnitude.”
More than 460,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, a figure that is second only to the United States. Many analysts are expecting another wave of the disease to hit the country by late June. Many hospitals have more than 80% of their intensive-care unit occupied by victims of the virus.
Argentina is facing a surge of coronavirus infections, with strict lockdown measures imposed last weekend amid a seven-day average of 35,000 cases and 500 deaths. More than 77,000 people have died in the country due to the disease, as the virus continues to spread.
Scientists expressed their concern with the decision to host the tournament in a nation where a more transmissible variant of the virus is dominant. So far Brazil's local authorities have not sanctioned the presence of fans in stadia, something Bolsonaro favors.
Miguel Nicolelis, a prominent Brazilian neuroscientist, voiced his opposition to the tournament taking place in the country on Twitter.
“Can anyone file an injunction at the Supreme Court to stop another attack on Brazilian people? Copa America will take place at the moment we reach 500,000 dead by COVID. We don't need more circus, we need vaccines and a government," Nicolelis wrote.
Dr. Denise Garrett of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a non-profit organisation advocating for improved vaccine access in Brazil, told The Associated Press that she is also opposed to the competition taking place in the country.
“This brings the risk of bigger transmission of the virus in the country because of the gatherings, bigger circulation of people, more interactions" she said. "And Brazil also runs the risk of introducing new variants that could come with players and workers from other countries.”
South American teams are already training for the tournament while two rounds of World Cup qualifiers are starting this week.
Like other continental tournaments, Copa America was initially scheduled for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement.
The 2020 version of Copa America was to introduce a new format with five teams based in each of the co-hosts, Colombia and Argentina. Group A features Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay while Group B includes Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. The four best teams in each group were to advance to the knockout stage, and the final was originally set to be played in Colombia’s Barranquilla.
It would have been the first Copa America hosted by two countries.
Qatar, the 2022 World Cup hosts, and Australia, which were to take part as guests, decided in February to withdraw due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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