A Pandemic Surge Threatens South America’s Premier Soccer Tournament
BUENOS AIRES — South America’s largest soccer tournament is scheduled to start in just over two weeks, but with one of the planned host countries, Colombia, removed because of ongoing political protests, and the remaining host, Argentina, mired in its worst coronavirus surge to date, it is unclear where the competition will take place.
As vaccinations mount in wealthy countries and their populations envision a return to normalcy, in much of South America the pandemic continues to exact a brutal toll — and now, with the commotion over the location of the most storied soccer championship in the region, it may stand between the region’s soccer-mad population and one of its most reliable sources of joy.
Argentines and their government officials are torn over the wisdom of hosting the championship, Copa América, in a discussion that mirrors the one in Japan over holding the Tokyo Olympics this summer as that country reels from the pandemic.
Last week, President Alberto Fernández called this Argentina’s “worst moment in the pandemic” and announced stringent lockdown measures. The country now ranks third in the world, after neighboring Uruguay and Paraguay, in the number of deaths as a proportion of the population over the past week, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Last Wednesday night, Mr. Fernández met with Alejandro Domínguez, the head of the South American soccer federation, Conmebol, and presented a “strict protocol” that would have to be followed in order for the tournament to be held in the country.
The requests include shrinking each team’s delegation as much as possible, and other demands intended to reduce the chance of spreading the virus.
Argentina’s Health Ministry will analyze the plans and come to a determination of whether the games, set to start June 13, and to feature stars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Neymar of Brazil, can go ahead.
Even though Conmebol said the Health Ministry would have to be the one to decide whether to proceed, Argentine officials implied the South American soccer federation would also have to decide whether it accepts Argentina’s conditions.
“We have to see whether the Conmebol will be able to fulfill the requirements that we are requesting,” Mr. Fernández’s chief of cabinet, Santiago Cafiero, said in a radio interview today. “They were quite surprised by the demands.”
Earlier this month, Conmebol removed Colombia as a co-host after rejecting Colombia’s request to postpone the tournament amid continuing civil unrest and anti-government protests that have killed at least 43 people.
That left Conmebol to consider the possibility of holding the entire championship in Argentina, amid rumors that there could be a last-minute agreement to include another host such as Chile, a vaccination success story in South America that has inoculated about 40 percent of its population.
Earlier in the week, Carla Vizzotti, the Argentine health minister, said the issue was being studied, but emphasized that allowing in a tightly controlled group of people would not present a risk to Argentina.
“Welcoming between 1,000 and 1,200 people from different places with a very strict protocol isn’t a very relevant epidemiological situation,” Ms. Vizzotti said in a television interview. She acknowledged, though, that the risk would never be zero: “There can be cases in a delegation or with journalists.”
Other officials have spoken against going forward with the tournament, including Nicolás Kreplak, the deputy health minister of Buenos Aires province, the country’s most populous, who suggested it be postponed “a few months.”
The discussion over the future of the tournament comes at a time when most of Argentina has been placed under a strict lockdown that forbids circulation of all but essential workers and includes a 6 p.m. curfew.
The measures, which are in place until the end of the month, were put in place last week as Argentina saw a surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths. With a population of around 45 million people, the country is now reporting around 550 deaths from Covid-19 per day, and some 35,000 cases.
For many in Argentina, the idea of holding a soccer tournament at a time when the government is urging people to stay home seems contradictory.
Conmebol has privately obtained vaccines, but across South America, there has been controversy about giving young, healthy soccer players priority when vaccination campaigns targeting the most vulnerable have lagged. Players in Paraguay, where only one percent of the population has been vaccinated, received a shot on Thursday, for example.
On Thursday, the hashtag #NoALaCopaAmericaEnArgentina, or NoToTheCopaAmericaInArgentina, started trending on Twitter.
“It’s outrageous,” said Esteban Domínguez, a 33-year-old retail worker. “I can’t believe with everything that’s going on the government is wasting time talking about soccer.”
Others, however, are optimistic that a soccer tournament could bring some much-needed joy to this soccer-crazed country — among them Mr. Messi, the soccer star, who arrived in his home country of Argentina this week.
“The whole team is looking forward to it, excited to play this cup. It’s been a while since we got together as well; the last time, we couldn’t because of this issue with the virus,” Mr. Messi said in an interview with a local sports newspaper. “It’s a special cup, it’s different because there will likely be no fans. But even so, personally, I’m really looking forward to it.”