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Rocked by Covid outbreaks, Copa America opens in Brazil

Brasília (AFP) – The Copa America that almost never was, opens Sunday in Brazil, overshadowed by the desperate race to find a host, the withdrawal of sponsors and Covid-19 — including outbreaks on two teams.

After more than a year of bad news that culminated in the last-minute scrapping of original co-hosts Argentina and Colombia, the South American championships will finally kick off  when Brazil face Venezuela at 6:00 pm (2100 GMT) in an empty Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia.

But that does not mean a respite from controversy, or from the coronavirus.

Officials confirmed a day before kickoff that at least eight Venezuelan players had tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the country to call up 15 emergency replacements to face the defending champions.

In all, 13 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation tested positive for the virus, including coaching staff, said the South American football confederation, CONMEBOL.

Bolivia later said three of its players and a coach had also tested positive and were in isolation ahead of their team’s debut Monday against Paraguay.

Brazilian health authorities said they were tracing everyone the infected individuals came into contact with, and would carry out genetic testing to determine whether they were carrying a potentially riskier variant of the virus.

The outbreaks are unlikely to derail the tournament.

CONMEBOL is allowing teams unlimited substitutions for players who are ruled out because of Covid-19 or contact with infected people.

But the news fueled further criticism of the tournament, and of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro for agreeing to host it despite the fact the pandemic is still raging in Brazil.

“There are vested interests in making the Copa America happen,” said sociologist Rodrigo Moreira of Fluminense Federal University, attempting to explain why the tournament was being held, given that health experts warned against it.

“The government wants to show the country is ready to host it, when in reality it’s not. And (organizers) want to guarantee their profits” from TV rights and sponsorship deals, he told AFP.

– Bad to worse –

Originally scheduled for 2020, the Copa America, the world’s oldest international football tournament, was delayed 12 months by the pandemic.

It nearly had to be called off again when Argentina and Colombia fell through as hosts because of a surge of Covid-19 in the former and violent anti-government protests in the latter.

Bolsonaro, who faces widespread criticism for his defiance of expert advice on managing the pandemic, controversially gave his blessing two weeks ago for Brazil to stand in.

But epidemiologists warn the event could exacerbate a Covid-19 outbreak that has already claimed more than 485,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.

Since then, the bad news has continued piling up.

Three sponsors — Mastercard, beer giant Ambev and alcoholic beverage company Diageo — pulled their branding from the tournament.

Many players and coaches criticized the event, including the entire Brazilian national team.

Two opposition parties and a labor union filed lawsuits to block it on health grounds.

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday the tournament could go ahead — but ordered the government to submit an extensive health protocol.

The 10 teams will undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing every 48 hours. Their movements will be restricted, and they will travel between the four host cities on chartered flights.

– ‘Copa no, vaccines yes’ –

Despite their famed love of football, many Brazilians say they do not want the tournament.

In Brasilia, there was little enthusiasm before the opening match.

“It’s great, but it’s a little bit last-minute,” 60-year-old teacher Neusa Batista told AFP.

Opponents protested outside the stadium before the match, holding signs that said, “We don’t want the Copa, we want vaccines!”

“It’s a fact that everyone who participates in this event risks being infected,” said civil servant Murilo Monteiro, 29.

“We just hope they won’t spread the virus even more here in Brazil.”

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