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22 Jun 2021

Marina Novaes, Brazil Researcher & Representative, BHRRC

Copa America or Covid America?

Copa America 2021, Brasil

The South American Football Championship, officially called CONMEBOL Copa América, is the main men’s national football team competition in the region. Scheduled to be played in 2020, jointly hosted by Argentina and Colombia, it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2021 tournament kicked off this month and has fast became the most hotly debated event years, but sadly not because of football. Concerns over the significant health risks have been expressed by players and the public, prompting major sponsors to withdraw support.

In the run-up to the rescheduled event, health concerns relating to the pandemic, alongside civil unrest in Colombia and public opposition in Argentina, caused both countries to pull out of hosting. Brazil was promptly announced as host by CONMEBOL.

Criticisms of this decision, especially directed at President Jair Bolsonaro, included the speed at which the federal government made the decision to accept hosting the championship in the country, compared with the delay in responding to pharmaceutical company Pfizer offering to sell doses of its vaccine against Covid-19.

Epidemiologists, who were already predicting a worsening of the health situation during this period, considered it a bad idea, as well as “a mockery and disrespect” to the families of the almost 500,000 people who have already died as a result of Covid in Brazil. Three lawsuits were presented to the Supreme Court requesting the suspension of the tournament, but the Court rejected them, and the matches kicked off on 13 June.

Players and teams have added their voice to the widespread concern about holding the Copa America. Bolivia forward Marcelo Moreno used his social networks to criticize CONMEBOL and Uruguayan Luis Suarez expressed concern the competition is being played in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Argentina’s Lionel Messi said he fears contracting Covid-19, and the Argentine team opted to set up base in its sports complex in Buenos Aires and travel whenever it has matches. The Brazilian team has does not want the Copa America hosted in Brazil.

Despite the tournament being played with no fans in the stadiums, cases of Covid-19 among players, delegation members and service providers continue to rise, as does the number of cases in host cities. In the opening match, between Brazil and Venezuela, the Venezuelan delegation arrived in Brazil with 13 people infected. Commonsense would dictate that this is reason enough to cancel the match, and the tournament, but unfortunately the interests pushing for the competition to continue have the upper hand.

Sponsors are taking note. Of the eight official sponsors of Copa America: Mastercard, Ambev, Diageo, Kwai, Semp TCL, Latam Betsson and TeamViewer, four have withdrawn their marketing actions during the event, despite having paid for the exposure. Mastercard was the first to remove its brand from the event which it has sponsored since 1992. British group Diageo claimed it would halt all brand activities “given the current health situation in Brazil and in relation to the timing of the Covid-19 pandemic”. Brazilian brewer Ambev, which is part of the world's largest brewer AB InBev and which sponsors the tournament and the Brazilian national team, said its “brands will not be present at the Copa America”. Social network Kwai withdrew its image from the tournament in Brazil, but declined to comment further. TCL announced the maintenance of its brand, but with messages of consciousness and prevention to Covid-19.

The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has notified the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) that states and municipalities hosting Copa America matches are being investigated for possible “acts violating the rights to life and health”. Also included in the investigation are the television channels responsible for broadcasting the games, in addition to sponsors. The Business and Human Rights Working Group of the MPF are powering the lawsuit, which sustained, among other things, that the presentation of structured plans by CBF and CONMEBOL cannot guarantee there will not be high transmissibility of Covid-19. The increased flow of passengers in public transport enhances the increase of virus transmission. For the MPF, the risk to the health of players, technical committee, journalists, security and auxiliary services is the responsibility of all these actors.

Carrying out the Copa America is a clear violation and disrespect to human dignity, as well as an inversion of what should be considered collective interest, given the serious health crisis as Brazil faces up to a third wave of the pandemic. Business also has a choice and it is encouraging to see some sponsors take a stand.

The companies that withdrew their sponsorship of the Copa America did so because they understood it was bad for business to associate their image with a competition that is putting peoples’ lives at risk and should not be taking place. If half a million deaths and the threat of new mutations are not reason enough to suspend the tournament, what else would be?