South American football federation CONMEBOL said on Monday it would move next month’s Copa America to Brazil, thanking Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for intervening after original host Argentina pulled out due to surging COVID-19 cases.
The surprising decision, which moves the competition from one South American coronavirus hotspot to another, means that the oldest international tournament in the world kicks off as planned on June 13, with the final on July 10. It’s a boost for Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who opposes lockdowns and urged Brazilians to return to normal life.
“The Copa America in 2021 will be played in Brazil!” CONMEBOL said in a statement. “Start and end dates have been confirmed. Host cities and matches will be announced by CONMEBOL in the coming hours.”
In a separate tweet, CONMEBOL thanked Brazil’s president, who has long kept the severity of the virus to a minimum, for his assistance.
“CONMEBOL would like to thank President @jairbolsonaro and his team, as well as the Brazilian Football Association, for opening the doors of the country to what is now the safest sporting event in the world,” it tweeted.
The president’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Brazil, more than 450,000 people have died from COVID-19. The country has routinely reported the continent’s highest number of cases and deaths and is currently ranked second in the world for both cases reported daily and deaths.
Major protests against Bolsonaro took place across Brazil on Saturday.
Omar Aziz, one of the senators investigating a high-profile congress into Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, said he saw no major problems with Brazil hosting the tournament as long as there were no crowds and proper security measures were followed.
But many others in Brazil, where football is a national obsession, were outraged by the decision. “The authorities pretend that Brazil has had as advanced a vaccination as in the US. It will be difficult to applaud the national team,” tweeted prominent journalist Guga Chacra.
Co-hosting arrangement prohibited
The CONMEBOL announcement comes less than 24 hours after Argentina said the outbreak meant it could no longer host.
This year’s Copa America would be the first to have joint hosts, but Colombia was removed as a co-host on May 20 following a wave of protests demanding social and economic change across the country.
CONMEBOL hoped Argentina would then be able to host all 28 games or share them with South American neighbors.
Organizers were reluctant to call it a lucrative tournament. The last Copa America, held in Brazil in 2019, brought in $ 118 million in revenue.
While no decision has been made on the locations yet, many of the stadiums Brazil has built for the 2014 World Cup are likely to host matches, with the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro or the Mane Garrincha Stadium in the capital Brasilia likely venues for the opening match or last.
The last-minute decision also raises some complicated questions for the Brazilian Football Association (CBF). The Brazilian league was not shut down for the Copa America and there are at least 70 league games scheduled during the month-long tournament.