Fri, 24 Sep 2021

Brazil: Copa America at all costs

10 Jun 2021, 17:37 GMT+10

Brazil's Supreme Court is set to rule this Thursday on a pair of appeals filed against the organisation of the Copa America in the country. With three days to go before the opening game, FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the twists and turns surrounding this controversial event.

The Copa America, the tournament for South America's international football teams, has seen many things in its 105-year history.

The 1918 version in Rio was postponed for a year due to an outbreak of the Spanish flu. During the 1970s, when dictators ruled the continent, the competition was almost forgotten. Now a global health crisis and politics have brought the 2021 version to the brink of a players' revolt.

A controversial edition

This 47th edition of the Copa is an extra one, squeezed into the calendar, ironically enough, to take advantage of a change from odd to even years. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, it was originally scheduled for 2020. To some of the players, it seemed like too much. There had been Copas in 2015 and 2019, and an edition celebrating the tournament's centenary in 2016. Was there really a need for another one?

As it was an extra edition, rights to host the competition were up for grabs. A big row lead to an ungainly compromise. Argentina and Colombia both wanted to host the Copa, so they could both have it. It was the first time the Copa was due to be staged in two countries - the logistical problems made worse in this case by the fact that the two nations lie at opposite ends of a large land mass.

Then a wave of social unrest forced Colombia to pull out. And, two weeks before the kick off, Argentina did the same. With the arrival of winter, the pandemic is currently at its worst in Argentina. Public opinion was clearly turning against the Copa, and Argentina pulled out.

Bolsonaro's cup

The unlikely saviour is Brazil, which stepped in at the last minute. But the pandemic has reached alarming levels there. The death toll in Brazil has now reached 477,000, and will inevitably hit the gruesome half-a-million mark during the competition.

There were rumblings of discontent among the continent's footballers. And with their country as the new host, the focus turned to Brazil's national team. They were extremely unhappy with the whole matter - including the fact that they had never been consulted. Rodrigo Caboclo, the president of Brazil's football association, had been with the players the day before the shock announcement that Brazil would step in as host, but had made no mention of it.

The Selecao's short-lived mutiny

Brazil's players had three grievances. They were unhappy with Caboclo, unhappy that the Copa would go ahead amid a pandemic, and unhappy that it was going ahead when the continent is behind the clock with its marathon World Cup qualification campaign.

The European-based players - nearly all of them - are giving up their holidays to be on national team duty. They would prefer to do it for something worthwhile, such as World Cup qualification, rather than this hastily cobbled together, controversial Copa.

On Friday the word coming out of those close to the Brazil camp was that the players would boycott the tournament - and use their influence to encourage players from other national teams to do the same. By Monday the story was different. There would be no boycott, but they would play the Copa under protest. And on Tuesday night, after beating Paraguay in World Cup qualification, that is the position they took.

The weakening of the players' position, then, came as no surprise. They had in part been appeased by the fact that Rodrigo Caboclo is, temporarily at least, no longer in charge of the football association. Formally accused of sexually and morally harassing an employee, he has been forced to step down for a while.

Moreover, the players were aware that they were sailing into dangerous waters. "At no moment did we want to make this discussion political," they said in their statement. But it is an impossible dream. This Copa is intensely political. It is strongly linked to the figure of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro. CONMEBOL, South America's football confederation, made a point of personally thanking Bolsonaro for opening the doors of his country for the Copa. And ensuring that the event goes ahead aligns perfectly with Bolsonaro's position on the pandemic - that the economy should be open as normal. Brazil's players, then, were taking on not only their FA and the continental football authorities. They were also about to enter into conflict with their president. And in the right-wing world of Brazilian football, many of them are, or at least have been, Bolsonaro supporters.

Tensions and uncertainties

Their statement, then, came across as half-hearted, stating their opposition to the Copa but going into no detail over their motives - merely mentioning humanitarian and professional concerns. It makes no one happy. Many were expecting something stronger, while Bolsonaro supporters are hardly placated by the players saying this Copa should not be going ahead.

As soon as the action kicks off on Sunday all these matters may all be forgotten. But this time it could be different. The 2021 Copa is truly a very strange competition. The first phase has two groups of five - and it will take more than two weeks to eliminate just one team per group. In other words, there is little action of note taking place until the closing week, in early July. Until then, Brazil's players could find themselves caught up in the political crossfire.

Originally published on France24

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