Football’s Covid Crisis: Copa America Cops It

by | Jun 7, 2021

The Covid vaccine roll-out programme is one of precisely TWO things our gloopy government has got right in its pandemic strategy, the other being the procurement of the rolled-out vaccines in the first place. And as a result of this winning combination, the more veteran professional footballers have now received their first jabs.

So it is no surprise that there’s been no positive tests in the English Premier League (EPL) since early May, and in the English Football League (EFL) since late April. Nonetheless, that news is worth the “ZERO” banner headlines which adorned Wednesday’s pro-Government Pravda-esque newspaper front pages about the Covid deaths registered on Bank Holiday Monday. Weekend figures are always low due to low staff numbers in relevant registration departments. But after the last 15 months, those headlines are so welcome, whatever the papers’ politics.

Off the pitch, there were 15 positive teats resulting from the first nine trial events in the government’s Events Research Programme, which were attended by 60,000+ punters. There were three Wembley football matches among the nine events, which also included an inordinate number of highly-social gatherings in Liverpool, for reasons upon which I daren’t speculate. But while the figures don’t reveal how many of the 15 were at Wembley, these results are encouraging.

Less encouraging news came from another Euros host city. After their impromptu Covid-regulation-busting event in Glasgow’s George’s Square when their team clinched their first-ever Scottish title, in March, fans celebrating Rangers’ fabulous unbeaten Scottish Premiership season again decided that Covid rules were for others as they gathered across the city in tight, unmasked bunches in May. Regular readers will know of my disdain for many aspects of Rangers FC, old and new. So I’ll leave the images of their celebrating to condemn themselves.

But possibly more encouraging news came from the regulated return of EPL and EFL fans to stadia from 18th May. It is hard to gauge precise impacts, given the surge in cases caused by Covid’s “Delta” variant, which entered the UK from India as Prime Minister Johnson delayed imposing the required travel restrictions in order to save his visit there (wealth-over-health, episode 94). However, fans’ returns do not yet appear to have significantly impacted English Covid case numbers.

Back on the pitch(es), international football is again taking centre-stage, with limited numbers of fans at Euro 2020(1) matches across 11 venues, starting next Friday in Rome and finishing at Wembley on 11th July. But, briefly, the South American equivalent, the Copa America 2020(1) has hogged the headlines, with a Covid-based, almost literally last-minute change of venue.

As with the Euros, the first global Covid wave put paid to the original event, scheduled for 12th June-12th July 2020, in Colombia and Argentina. It was rescheduled for this 11th June-10th July. But a spike in political unrest in Colombia in late April threatened their ability to stage games safely. “The Copa America is firm,” Colombian President Ivan Duque declared, which didn’t help. And on 20th May, continental confederation Conmebol announced that the games scheduled for Colombia, including the final, would be held elsewhere.

On 27th May, Argentina confirmed that Conmebol had offered them the chance to stage the whole show. But it was instantly clear that they would have to impose severe restrictions to stage 28 games Covid-securely. Behind-closed-doors, certainly. Despite having entered strict national lockdown on 22nd May, Argentina reported 41,080 new cases, with 547 deaths on the 27th. Daniel Edwards reported on the website that Argentina was “on a par with neighbouring Uruguay as the worst-hit country in the world right now.” And even health minister Carla Vizzotti believed “it would be better” to postpone the Copa for “a couple of months.”

So, no-one paying proper attention was surprised when Conmebol announced last Sunday night that due to “present circumstances,” Argentina would no longer be host nation. The confederation said they were “analysing offers from other countries that have shown an interest in hosting,” with immediate reports suggesting that a bid from the United States had been rejected and that Paraguay and Chile were keen, the latter claiming to have already vaccinated half their adult population, a far above average roll-out rate for the region; Brazil, for instance, is reportedly 11% vaccinated.

Thus, hours later, Conmebol announced new hosts…er…Brazil. This decision split the nation down the middle, between those who welcomed it (the government) and those who did not (everyone else). Opposition politicians, city and state authorities, sports journalists and even high-profile players such as Uruguay’s Luis Suarez expressed objections and/or concern. But National Government “Chief of Staff,” General Luiz Ramos tweeted dismissively that “incoherent criticism is everywhere.” Which paved the way for opportunistic national president, Jair Bolsonaro, to offer Brazil’s services.

In justifying his decision, Bolsonaro noted that Brazil had this year hosted international club games in South America’s Champions and Europa League equivalents, plus the national team’s World Cup qualifiers. ”Nobody said anything about that,” he claimed, dubiously. And Conme all-but-confirmed that it WAS the authoritarian, neo-fascist, racist, sexist, homophobic Bolsonaro’s decision (sorry if I’ve left anything out).

They thanked him “and his team” before Brazil’s Football Federation, the CBF, for “opening the doors…to what is today the safest sporting event in the world.” Yes. They said that. And Conme president, Paraguay’s Alejandro Dominguez, by-passed the CBF entirely, offering “special thanks to (Bolsonaro) and his cabinet for hosting the tournament,” as if the matches were in the populist prick’s doubtless many back gardens.

Across the two days after this sycophantic drivel, Brazil’s Covid stats were barely better than Argentina’s. They recorded 4,915 Covid deaths, while Argentina, whose population is 20% of Brazil’s, recorded 1,227. But Brazil, who hosted and won the last Copa in 2019, has the infrastructure to ensure that Conme doesn’t lose a cent of broadcast revenue that Conme doesn’t lose a cent of broadcast revenue. And, no, I haven’t mistakenly typed that phrase twice. If health mattered more than wealth, the Copa wouldn’t be in fcuking Brazil…or anywhere. But the 2019 edition made $118m. And that matters more to Conme than thousands of daily deaths.

Opposition is growing in volume and significance. Brazil’s Supreme Court want a word. Justice Ricardo Lewandowski (no, really) responded on Wednesday to formal objections from the opposition Workers’ Party by giving Bolsonaro five days to explain himself (“Is Bolsonaro serious?” asked Workers Party President Gleisi Hoffman, less formally). Lewandowski set the tight deadline for “information from the president of the Republic” because of “the public health emergency resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the urgency the case requires.”

The issue has been shoe-horned into the Brazilian Senate’s televised inquiry into Bolsonaro’s pandemic (mis)handling. “It’s illogical to hold an international event,” Senator Omar Aziz declared, correctly, channelling his inner Mr. Spock. Senate colleague and inquiry spokesperson Renan Calheiros called the Copa “a championship of death” and said players shouldn’t play “while your relatives and acquaintances continue to die.” Emotive. But appropriately so.

And on Thursday, probably co-incidentally, players did begin voicing objections, including those from jilted hosts Colombia and, yes, Brazil. Brazil captain Casemiro body-swerved press briefing duties ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier with Ecuador, which team manager Tite attributed to squad talks with CBF president Rogerio Caboclo. “The players’ stance has become very clear,” Tite admitted. He refused to detail this stance until after Brazil’s World Cup qualifier in Paraguay. But he didn’t have to. As Casemiro said after Brazil beat Ecuador 2-0, “We can’t talk about our position regarding the Copa America (but) it is impossible to be clearer.”

Colombian players union, Acolfutpro, issued a statement expressing the national teams’ “concern about the untimely change of venue, given the complicated health situation in Brazil.” The statement said Conme’s decision had generated “uncertainty among footballers, because of the risk to their health” and “the tranquility and guarantees they require for a normal competition to take place.”

Meanwhile, journalists opposed to the Copa have reached for the puns. “Cova America,” (Grave of the Americas) wrote veteran anti-sports corruption journalist Juca Kfouri. “Cepa America” (Strain of the Americas) was another one-letter adjustment which caught the mood.

And on Saturday, Rio de Janeiro mayor, Eduardo Paes, threatened the city’s eight games, including the final. “We didn’t ask for the Copa America and, if you want my opinion, it isn’t the right time to organise such a tournament,” he said, complaining that organisers had not “at any time contacted the municipal health authorities.” Matches in Rio had been authorised by a mayoral decree which runs out next Monday. “But if the situation worsens,” Paes threatened, “we will have another decree” to “put an end” to the Copa in the city.

At the time of typing, therefore, the prospect of the tournament collapsing looms ever larger. And Bolsonaro might have to summon all his considerable authoritarian instincts to get this one through. Brazilian football authorities’ dark historic acquiescence to military dictatorship is well-documented. Whether modern Brazil breaks from that past remains to be seen. Bolsonaro heads a democratically-elected civilian administration. But his chief of staff is GENERAL Ramos.

With vaccine doses globally following the money, Euro 2020(1) is having a less fraught time. Putative hosts Dublin and Bilbao were given the big E by Uefa in April for being unable to guarantee that games could be behind timeously opened doors. Ireland’s vaccine roll-out has been slow and low, leading to its Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) staging games in Northern Ireland with crowds, wherever visiting teams are from. More of which when 2021’s GAA “Championship” starts in three weeks…be warned.

Travel restrictions into the UK are stricter than for other host nations, mainly due to the Delta variant. Visitors here must quarantine, while visitors elsewhere must just prove a recent negative test. With England and Scotland not, yet, separate nations and few fans are expected from Group D’s mainland European nations, Croatia and the Czech Republic, this will not be a big issue until Wembley and Glasgow host last-16 matches on 29th June and Wembley hosts the semi-finals and final, on 6th, 7th and 11th July. The UK should be out of lockdown on 21st June. But…Delta Variant etc…

Uefa “are in dialogue” with the government over what happens post-21st June, even if things “go back to normal,” said tournament director Martin Kallen. “What will the rules say for foreigners to come to the UK who are not on a business trip?” A government spokesperson replied: “Overseas ticket holders will be able to watch Euro 2020 matches at Wembley” (no mention of Glasgow, you’ll notice) “but will be subject to travel restrictions and requirements in England and at their place of origin, including testing and quarantining.” And they insisted that there were “no plans to change travel exemptions.”

However, there won’t be ten days between fans knowing if their team have reached the second round etc… and the games themselves. This will force fans to either gamble on their team’s progress, thereby making potentially un-necessary journeys if their teams fail to get out of their group/lose their quarter-finals, or watch games from quarantine (paying their hotel bills by selling their tickets at a sufficient mark-up, perhaps?).

Wembley’s last-16 tie is between England’s group winners (handy, that) and the runners-up in Group F, where Hungary face holders Portugal, many peoples’ favourites France and, ulp, Germany. Glasgow’s game pits Group E’s winners with the third-placed team in Groups A, B, C or D. This could be Scotland…or England. In fact, it could still be most nations on 19th June, when fans would have to start quarantining in order to be able to go. “We will keep this under review over the course of the tournament,” the spoke added. You’d better had.

Anyway, Euro 2020(1)’s major issues with the virus itself remain individual. Scotland’s 2-2 warm-up game draw with the Netherlands was a fine result as they were missing seven players, six of whom were withdrawn “as a precaution” after the seventh, Sheffield United midfielder John Fleck, tested positive at Scotland’s Spanish training camp on Tuesday.

The asymptomatic Fleck is self-isolating at the Alicante camp and is not currently in danger of missing the Euros, although, under Spanish health protocols, he must return two negative tests before leaving quarantine. The precautioned six (David Marshall, Stephen O’Donnell, Nathan Patterson, Grant Hanley, John McGinn and Che Adams) all played in Scotland’s 1-0 win over ten-man Luxembourg on Sunday, all but Patterson starting and Adams scoring the goal.

Elsewhere, the Euros Covid news includes teams refusing to “jump” vaccine queues, despite Uefa recommending that they should “pursue vaccination options as soon as reasonably available in their respective country.”

Belgium’s government let players queue-jump. But half the squad reportedly refused in case jab side-effects affected their tournament fitness. England players have also refused, with the FA reportedly trusting their use of bio-secure bubbles and a stringent testing regime and “aware” of “sensitivities around players being prioritised ahead of teachers and police officers.” Good for them for refusing to be told what to do by Uefa, certain English fans were surely thinking.

Fingers-crossed for the Euros, then. On our knees and praying… BEGGING for the Copa. And its cancellation. Surely, sometime soon, health must trump wealth. Mustn’t it?