Copa America Preview: The Groups of Death

by | Jun 13, 2021

Well. It’s happening. As I feared when writing about the Copa America 2020(1) last week, Brazil’s authoritarian president Jair Bolsonaro and the array of Generals who have positions of authority in his ‘civilian’ administration pulled out all their stops to ensure that talk of boycotting the event remained just that.

Brazil’s national team, the Selecao, had the power to collapse the Copa by refusing to participate. Last week, they and team manager Tite said as much as they could about refusing to play without actually saying they would refuse to play. They said they would make their feelings known after their World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador last Friday and Paraguay this Tuesday, both of which they won 2-0. And they were true to that word. But, disappointing though their decision is to refuse to refuse to play, it is entirely understandable, given the various pressures applied to them in recent days.

Despite guiding the Selecao to six wins out of six, with their win in Asuncion on Tuesday their first in Paraguay’s capital for 36 years, Tite faced calls for his sacking, notably from Brazil’s vice-president, General (of course) Hamilton Mourao. “In my day,” Mourao whinged, like an old man at a bus stop moaning about how kids never queue anymore, “when a player was called up for the national team, he considered it an honour.” Mourao further complained that Tite “doesn’t want this, he doesn’t want that” and suggested he go “ask for the job” at newly-promoted club Mato Grosso, who sacked their manager a week into the new season.

Meanwhile, although Brazilian senators have been among the most virulent critics of the decision to host the Copa, one felt strongly enough the other way to label Tite a “hypocrite” and a “lickspittle” of former president, Luis Ignacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, from the current opposition Workers’ Party. The name of this senator, defending Bolsonaro as if he was the president’s son? Flavio. Flavio…Bolsonaro, the president’s son.

Last Friday, football federation (CBF) president, Rogerio Caboclo, was accused by an ex-CBF employee of sexual harassment. This formal claim was ‘informally’ backed by the emergence of tapes (always tapes), purportedly made by the victim, of Caboclo allegedly asking about the victim’s sex life in abusive detail, extracts from which were published by media giant Globo. Caboclo was suspended for 30 days, pending an investigation into unspecified aspects of his conduct by the CBF’s ethics committee. His replacement? CBF Senior vice-president, Antonio Carlos Nunes, a retired…guess what? Army General. Of course.

Tite survived the pressure for his sacking. Alas, his squad couldn’t but succumb to the pressure to play, which would have been considered considerable in any country, let alone football-fundamentalist Brazil. “We will never say no to the Brazilian national team,” they said in conclusion to an official statement on Thursday, knowing the professional AND personal consequences of saying no.

Tabloid-esque media headlines about the squad “blasting” and “hitting out” at the decision to hold the Copa in Brazil were not misleading. But the statement reserved its blasts and hits for Conme, despite the idea being demonstrably Bolsonaro’s. The national president wasn’t even mentioned. And the players thought it “important to emphasise that at no time did we want to make this a political discussion.” But whether this was true or not, the importance of this emphasis would surely have been emphasised to them.

Thus, “for many reasons, humanitarian or professional,” the players were “not satisfied with the conduct shown by (Conme) in relation to the Copa America,” they were “against the organisation” of it and “all recent facts” led them “to believe” there was “an inadequate process.” But they were “aware of the importance of their position.” And they remembered that they were “workers, soccer professionals” on a mission from God “to achieve, wearing the historic yellow and green jersey of the five-time world champions.” So, how could they ever “say no”?

“I have no say over the coaches and players,” Bolsonaro had claimed on Monday, setting all sorts of world disingenuousness records. But the Selecaos’ decisions to play made it two down, one to go for ‘his’ Copa. Brazil’s Supreme Court went into emergency session on Thursday, to adjudicate on three appeals against staging the Copa, filed by the Brazilian Socialist and Workers Parties and the national metalworkers union. The plaintiffs’ identities exposed them to accusations of political motivation, even though they argued that staging the Copa posed an “unacceptable health risk” and would “violate the fundamental rights to life and death.”

However, Brazil’s leading epidemiologists have warned for weeks of a third Covid wave, which would be exacerbated by hosting the Copa. And when Brazil got the tournament, pandemic response committee member and infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez said it would “contribute to a new flare-up.” Because even without fans, “an event of that size moves countless people (and) increases the spread of the virus.” It was, he said, “impossible to describe the insanity of trying to hold an event of this magnitude here now.” Strong words from Brazil’s Dr Anthony Fauci, as lazy writers might label him.

Bolsonaro didn’t need to play the ludicrous ‘political-motivation’ card (Nigel fcuking Farage can shove that up his proverbial pocket for any knee-taking at the Euros). A 10-to-1 majority verdict from the court’s 11 justices went against the plaintiffs as the court ruled that they had no constitutional power to do otherwise. However, Justice Carmen Lucia ruled that state governors and mayors had the responsibility “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.”

The BBC reported that the justices had also “expressed their dismay” at Bolsonaro’s “last-minute decision to stage the tournament.” He nonetheless welcomed the decision with all the class that he could muster, predicting that Brazil would “massacre” Venezuela in the 13th June tournament opener.

It won’t quite be the Copa of Bolsonaro’s dreams. There will be restrictions of the sort which he claims has “destroyed jobs” as businesses struggled with the viral impact. No fans, for a start. Mandatory testing of teams every 48 hours. Highly restricted movements of players across the country (indeed, Argentina have special dispensation to base themselves at home, only entering Brazil for matches). Brazil’s health ministry have shied from requiring teams and backroom teams to be vaccinated, in case (as some Euros teams also said) post-jab side-effects “compromise players’ performance.”

And the ‘controversies’ surrounding the event have hit sponsorship. Hardy perennials at dodgy football tournaments Mastercard euphemistically “opted not to activate” its partnership with the Copa. Brazilian “beer giant” Ambey was similarly linguistically coy, announcing that its brands “will not be present.” Fellow alcoholic beveragists Diageo withdrew too. This combo of rising costs and falling sponsorship will have a considerable impact on the bung Bolsonaro received for offering to host the Copa tournament revenues. But the alternative of no football and no money was not up for contemplation. So, here we are again.

Current form guide is easy to gauge. All ten Conme nations play in one World Cup qualifying group. And the 2022 group is a third of the way through. So the current table isn’t lying like a cabinet minister when it places the ten in this order: Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela and, alas for us lovers of their kit, Peru. But let’s examine each nation’s current situation, anyway.

(Figures represent: Cases/deaths last week; Total cases/deaths; Population)

BRAZIL: 407,137/11,641; 17,215,159/482,125; 214.1m

ARGENTINA: 177,691/4,150; 4.093,090/84,628; 45.6m

ECUADOR: 6,332/243; 437,121/20,997; 17.9m

URUGUAY: 24,995/390; 330,027/4,862; 3.5m

COLOMBIA: 172,861/3,725; 3,565,137/94,046; 51.7m

PARAGUAY: 19,504/928; 387,687/10,561; 7.2m

CHILE: 50,078/776; 1,461,418/30,472; 19.4m

BOLIVIA: 16,590/423; 400,047/15,321; 11.8m

VENEZUELA: 9,565/109; 247,847/2,781; 27.8m

PERU: 36,015/2,748; 1,995,257/188,347; 33.5m

Sorry…what about the football? Well, people are dying, over 25,000 across the continent last week. The football only matters to grubby money-grabbers and grubby populist prick politicians needing to divert attention from the personal inadequacies which have killed their citizens. The Copa was taken from Colombia because of a surge in civil unrest and Argentina because of a surge in Covid cases…and given to a nation surging in both. Cui bono? Conme, Bolsonaro and their fellow-travellers. Everyone else can go fcuk themselves. Those that don’t die.

Here’s to every player staying safe and well over the Copa’s 28 days and beyond. Conme, Bolsonaro and ALL their fellow-travellers can go fcuk THEMSELVES.