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Men’s football Brazil play controversial Copa America amid backdrop of protests and coronavirus

THE 2021 Copa America kicks off on tomorrow night when the South American nations join this summer’s feel-good festival of international football, but it does so in controversial circumstances.

Players, especially those of last-minute hosts Brazil, have spoken out against holding the tournament amid the ongoing threat posed by the coronavirus.

It was decided last month that original hosts Argentina and Colombia would not be able to hold the tournament in their respective nations due to a surge of Covid cases in the former and the ongoing uprising against the country’s right-wing government in the latter. 

Instead, the tournament will be held in a country where both these situations exist, and the hosting of a football tournament will likely mean they intensify.

As with the Euros, this edition of the Copa America was originally due to take place last summer but was postponed due to coronavirus.

The tournament in its current format is supposed to be quadrennial but had the 2020 edition gone ahead as planned, it would have been the fourth tournament in six years.

This is due to a special centenary Copa America being held in the United States in 2016, and a move by Conmebol — South American football’s governing body — to align the tournament with the Euros, hence the additional edition planned for 2020.

With the Euros already under way following last night’s opener between Turkey and Italy, on the other side of the world, the South American equivalent kicks off tomorrow night when Brazil host Venezuela in the opening game.

The new hosts of the tournament were only confirmed on Thursday after three injunctions, presented by trade unions and opposition parties, were rejected by Brazil’s Supreme Court, meaning the tournament goes ahead in Brazil despite the obvious issues.

“It falls to state governors and mayors to set the appropriate health protocols and ensure they are respected in order to avoid a ‘Copavirus,’ with new infections and the emergence of new variants,” Justice Carmen Lucia wrote in her ruling.

The cavalier attitude of Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro towards coronavirus has seen the country become one of the worst-hit in the world, and he’s now backed the hosting of the Copa America.

A number of Brazilian footballers have declared support for Bolsonaro in the past but in an open letter to their fans, released on Wednesday, they condemned the decision to go ahead with the tournament, though they will not boycott it.

“For many reasons, be they humanitarian or professional, we are not satisfied with the conduct shown by Conmebol relating to the Copa America,” they said.

“All recent facts lead us to believe it has been an inadequate process. It is important to emphasise that at no time did we want to make this a political discussion. 

“We are aware of the importance of our position. We follow what is published by the media and are present on social media. 

“We also try to avoid fake news bearing our names being circulated without the true facts.

“Finally, we remember that we are workers — professional footballers. We have a mission to carry out wearing the historic yellow and green jersey of the five-time world champions.

“We are against the way this Copa America has been organised, but we will never say no to the Brazilian national team.”

As the statement signifies, Brazil are a close-knit and emotionally united group under the leadership of their manager, Tite, and this served them well when they won the Copa America in 2019.

Though the players say their stance is not political, it clearly is, and their decision to speak out could begin to highlight to other Bolsonaro supporters that their president isn’t working in their best interests.

Even though matches are being played behind closed doors, protests in the country could increase using the football matches as a vehicle.

The Copa will be played in venues in Rio de Janeiro, Cuiaba, Goiania and the capital Brasilia, while the Brazilian domestic season continues across the country alongside it.

“Everyone knows our position in the Copa America in Brazil,” vice-captain Casemiro said following a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador last Friday.

“It’s not just me, not just the players who play in Europe. It’s everyone, including Tite. All together.”

Holding the tournament in Brazil at this time was certainly a bad idea, but were the players to boycott it, the anger of many would be directed towards them rather than their negligent president.

Their decision to use their involvement in the Copa America as a protest in itself could help highlight Bolsonaro’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus, and may even go some way towards turning the tide against him.

The Brazil players are playing in this tournament “for the more than 200 million fans” to whom they addressed that open letter. 

They have made it abundantly clear they are not playing it for Conmebol and, even though they didn't mention his name in their statement, they are certainly not playing it for Bolsonaro.

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