You may be getting your large-sporting-events-that-shouldn’t-be-taking-place confused, and it would be understandable. There’s the Olympics, which just lost 10,000 volunteers, is in a state of emergency, and yet welcoming thousands of athletes from 200 countries — doesn’t seem all that sharp. There’s Euro 2020(1), which has had to strip some of its venues of games because they couldn’t allow fans due to the pandemic.
Throw Copa America into it, and it’s becoming a pretty dense stew. And if I told you Copa America might be the biggest mess of all, I would have to acknowledge the enormity of that statement. But it very well might be the case.
Let’s review. Originally, Copa America was supposed to be last summer, the second consecutive summer it would take place in order to put it on the same cycle as the European Championships, i.e. interspersed with the World Cup by two years. It was supposed to be in both Colombia and Argentina. That in itself is kind of a mess, as a cursory knowledge of South American geography would tell you both countries are on opposite sides of the continent. Because of that, the format was changed from the normal four-team groups that you are accustomed to to one with five teams in each country. Pods, if you will.
Of course, the pandemic hit, and — like everything else — the tournament was postponed by a year. But that certainly didn’t stop the headaches and shenanigans.
Last month, Colombia was dropped as co-host, because of the small matter of massive political protests in the country… and COVID-19. Considering the atmosphere, keeping a tournament and its participants safe wasn’t exactly high on the priority list there, and understandably so.
Which left Argentina as the sole host. Except for the fact that Argentina is nowhere near having the virus under control, had shut down its own domestic soccer league for safety reasons, and hadn’t been allowing fans at all either. Last week, the country was seeing 30,000 new infections per day, and just yesterday recorded 35,000 new infections.
Which meant it did the only sensible thing and pulled out of its hosting duties, probably thinking that would cause the doomed tournament to likely just cancel. After all, it had no home.
Ah, but never doubt the desire of a soccer federation to get its TV money! Throw in COMNEBOL’s usual corrupt and balloon-handed nature (making it no different than any other giant sports entity, really), and you knew some doofus solution would be found.
When looking for a doofus, the current Brazilian government is a good place to start, and the tournament had its stooge. The tournament left one country due to political and social uprising, and another due to an uncontained, deadly virus. So why not take it to a country that has both?
Just yesterday, Brazil recorded 95,000 new cases of COVID, up from 78,000 the day before. 2,500 people died from the virus just yesterday.
Which led to mass protests continuing against President Jair Bolsonaro, who answers the question, “What if you took Donald Trump, but increased his asshole meter by about 20%?” Thousands took to the streets in Rio and Sao Paulo to protest Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, which has been just above a raised finger (care to guess which one?). There have been calls for Neymar and others to pull out of their respective squads in a show of protest, but that hasn’t happened, yet. The tournament will, at the moment, be held in empty stadiums. But never underestimate the capabilities of Bolsonaro.
But that won’t keep COMNEBOL from their TV money. The last tournament in 2019, also in Brazil, earned COMNEBOL some $118 million. While no ticket sales would chew into that number this time around, we can be sure the TV contracts are still worth plenty. And that’s what matters, at least to the people in charge.
This being COMNEBOL, this won’t be the last twist or turn in this saga. I would say it’s hard to see how it could get more bizarre or stupid, but we know exactly what could happen. Which would be beyond both of those descriptions.