Copa América’s ‘championship of death’ a far cry from joyous Euro 2020 scenes

Fans don’t want it, empty stadiums, Covid is rife and yet matches continue to be played

 

Several hours after Denmark’s emotional win over Russia on Monday it fell to Chile and Uruguay to drag us back to the worst of pandemic football. After enjoying the scenes of agony and ecstasy among 25,000 fans in Copenhagen, viewers were once again able to hear the barked instructions of coaches echoing off deserted stands as the two teams played out a dour one-all draw in an empty stadium in the Brazilian city of Cuiabá.

These contrasting atmospherics perfectly encapsulated the differing fortunes of the European Championships and its South Amarica counterpart, the Copa América. Both are on a year behind schedule because of the pandemic. But Europe has used the interval to better effect. Containment measures and vaccine rollouts mean the Euros can now be played in front of fans. Even if most stadiums are not yet at capacity the return of spectators has come to symbolise a continent emerging from the worst.

In Brazil the situation is very different. After serial missteps, most crucially over vaccinations, the country finds itself in the grip of a punishing third wave of Covid-19 which has forced the Copa América behind closed doors. This has robbed football’s oldest international tournament of one of its vital components. “The game in South America has always been famous for its passion and drama and fans are part of the spectacle. The difference between the Euros where there are at least some fans in the grounds, and the eerily empty stadiums in the Copa América is depressing and sad,” says football writer Andrew Downie.

Brazil only stepped in to stage the tournament at the last minute when original co-hosts Argentina and Colombia withdrew. The offer by the country’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro bailed out Conmebol, the continent’s football confederation, which otherwise risked losing the tournament altogether to fixture congestion.

Conmebol promised the Copa would make the continent that has been hardest hit by the pandemic “vibrate”. But with deaths from Covid-19 in Brazil passing the half-million mark, Bolsonaro’s decision to host it despite the sanitary emergency has been met with widespread outrage. The senator charged with investigating the administration’s pandemic response labelled it “the championship of death”. Several corporate sponsors pulled out, among them Guinness owner Diageo citing “the current health situation in Brazil”.

Opinion polls show a majority of Brazilians are against hosting the tournament and their team’s first game against Venezuela attracted a record low television audience, despite being in the Sunday primetime slot. But at least the seleção played. For a few days after the country stepped in as emergency host it looked like the players would rebel over how the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) had handled the switch.

Eventually they settled for a statement declaring: “We are against the organization of Copa América, but we will never say no to the Brazilian national team.” The CBF has since spent the tournament consumed by a boardroom civil war that has seen its president Rogério Caboclo forced to step down for 30 days after being accused of sexual harassment.

With fans unable to attend games and the public largely uninterested in it anyway, the tournament has struggled to escape the pandemic’s shadow. Already 140 players and backroom staff have tested positive for Covid-19, further fuelling unease that the event is happening at all. When Bolivia’s veteran striker Marcelo Moreno tested positive he took to social media to rage against organisers. “If a person dies what will you do? What matters to you is just money. Are the lives of players not worth anything?” He was handed a fine and a one-match ban for his outburst.

Part of the problem for Conmebol is that unlike previous editions of the tournament the spectacle provided by the games themselves this time around is not enough to distract from any off-pitch failings. The football so far has been turgid and most of the big stars taking part are pushing on in age. Barcelona ace Lionel Messi, who turned 34 on Thursday, is making his sixth attempt to win a Copa with Argentina. Meanwhile the younger players coming through are largely unknowns yet to generate any buzz.

This lack of quality compared with the tournament in Europe also reflects a broader decline in South American football. “The continent isn’t at risk of falling into football’s second division. It is already there,” says Amir Somoggi. A director of Brazilian consultancy Sports Value, he says mismanagement and corruption have left the region’s game lagging so far behind its peers in Europe that the domestic league in Portugal now generates more income from marketing than Brazil’s despite only having a fraction of its population.

The continent’s once proud clubs now survive this mismanagement by selling off their best prospects at ever younger ages. This denies the South American nations the chance to copy the recent successes of Spain and Germany by building their teams around their league’s best club sides. “The system here needs to be replaced but Conmebol and the national federations lack the humility to reinvent themselves,” says Somoggi.

Based on the games across the two tournaments so far, only Brazil look set to be able to compete with the best Europe has to offer at next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Despite his latest off field problems involving new allegations of sexual harassment, Neymar has been the tournament’s stand-out player. But it is hard to gauge just how good the seleção are considering the low quality of their neighbours and a lack of friendlies against European sides who now must fit Uefa’s Nations League into their schedule. Since Brazil was dumped out of the last World Cup in 2018 by Belgium they have only faced one European team, the Czech Republic.

“They’ll be desperate to do well in Qatar because 20 years is a long time for them not to win the World Cup,” says author Downie, whose upcoming book is about the 1970 World Cup in Mexico won by Brazil.

“But the trend is clear. Nine of the first 17 World Cups were won by South American teams. The last four were won by Europeans. Only one of the last eight finalists was from South America, Argentina in 2014. It’s not an encouraging trend for South American football fans.”

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