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Coronavirus and conflict threaten Copa America one month out

Buenos Aires (AFP) – With the Copa America due to begin in one month, uncertainty remains over whether it will actually go ahead as hosts Argentina and Colombia struggle respectively with the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.

A final decision is expected to be taken on Thursday when South American football’s governing body CONMEBOL’s Council meets, with the presidents of all 10 member federations present.

A CONMEBOL source told AFP on Wednesday the body expects the tournament to go ahead as planned.

There’s also no fear that European clubs — who threatened to prevent players from taking part in World Cup qualifiers in March due to the possibility of quarantine restrictions on their return — would object, meaning stars like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Neymar of Paris Saint-Germain should feature.

Yet Argentina, which is due to host the opening match on June 13, is mired in its worst moment since the pandemic began. More than three million people have contracted the virus, 68,000 of whom died from Covid-19.

Colombia has been baulked by two weeks of social unrest resulting in 42 deaths and hundreds of injuries as demonstrators clashed with police, whose heavy-handed response has received international condemnation.

The country also remains submerged by coronavirus with likewise three million cases and 78,000 deaths.

“It’s probable that the peak of infections won’t fall” by the time the tournament begins, Diego Rosselli, professor of epidemiology at the Javeriana university in Bogota, told AFP.

However, there is precedent here as Colombia managed to host the Copa in 2001 despite the country being gripped by a decades-long conflict with left-wing guerrillas.

Back then, Argentina and invitees Canada pulled out with Costa Rica and Honduras drafted in as late replacements. Brazil and Uruguay sent second string squads, but the tournament passed off without incident and Colombia won for the first time.

– Support from Colombia president –

But while much of the world has been in lockdown, professional football has proved resistent to most containment measures.

“We’re casually playing football with a mountain of infections,” said former Argentina coach Angel Cappa.

The tournament has the backing of Colombia’s embattled President Ivan Duque.

“It would be absurd not to play the Copa America if they’re playing the European Championship, especially given the epidemiological figures in certain (European) countries are the same, or even, in some places, worse” than in South America, he said.

Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez is not so confident, saying recently: “I don’t want to thwart the Copa but we have to be very sensible.”

CONMEBOL’s hopes of having fans in stadiums also looks set to be frustrated.

With intensive care units on the brink of collapse, Fernan Quiros, the health minister for Buenos Aires, warned the city “cannot organize spectacles with large crowds.”

CONMEBOL doesn’t seem to be listening and launched the tournament’s official song.

“It’s an unequivocal sign that work is continuing,” a source told AFP.

As things stand, the opening match between Argentina and Chile in the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires is going ahead.

As is the final in the Colombian city of Barranquilla on July 10.

– Chinese vaccines –

Continental cup competitions the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana have been disrupted by the Colombian unrest and pandemic but CONMEBOL started vaccinating footballers last week thanks to 50,000 vaccine doses donated by Chinese state pharmaceutical company Sinovac.

Even players’ family members will be immunized while vaccination centers have been set up in London, Rome and Madrid for European-based players.

Referees, coaches and support staff at professional clubs have also received jabs.

CONMEBOL seems determined to do everything in its power to ensure authorities have no reasons to force their hand.

In Brazil, the current champions, both team coach Tite and the country’s football federation have remained tight-lipped.

Brazil’s vaccine roll-out has been condemned for being slow, parts of the country have seen their health systems collapse and 425,000 people have died of Covid-19.

For many, football should be the last thing on their minds.

“Since the start of the pandemic, Brazilian football’s leaders have been thinking only about themselves, the game and money,” said former Brazil international Walter Casagrande.


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