The oldest running international football competition in the world, the Copa America has, in recent times, been embroiled in controversy. Politics, protests, pandemic have all played their part in this unfortunate turn of events.
Following the Copa's 2019 edition in Brazil, it was decided that the quadrennial tournament would move from odd to even-numbered years from 2020 to move the tournament in line with the UEFA European Championship (Euros).
Originally the 2020 Copa America was scheduled to run from 12 June to 12 July 2020, with Argentina and Colombia co-hosting South America’s most prestigious tournament for the very first time. However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was inevitable. Three months before the tournament's original start, it was announced that the (now renamed) Copa America 2021 would be held from 11th June to 11 July 2021.
All was well and good for the next 15 months, with international football taking a back seat and club football taking over. However, in the weeks leading up to Copa America 2021, there was once again an air of uncertainty.
With Colombia witnessing widespread protests against increased taxes, corruption and healthcare reforms proposed by President Ivan Duque Marquez, it was dropped as a co-host 20 days before the opening game, citing security reasons.
But misfortunes never come alone. Argentina, too, found itself facing massive hurdles. Two days after Colombia was out as the Copa America 2021 host, Argentina went under a nine-day national lockdown due to soaring COVID-19 cases.
On 30 May 2021, it was declared that Copa América would be pulled out from Argentina due to the prevailing circumstances. CONMEBOL was now looking for a new host, as both the primary hosts were out of the running. A day later, Brazil swooped in to save the day and accepted to host the Copa for the second time running.
But that has come with its fair share of outrage, as the Copa is now being held in a country where the pandemic has wreaked more havoc. More than 460,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, with another wave of the disease expected to hit the country by late June. Many Brazilian hospitals have more than 80% of their intensive care units occupied by COVID-19 patients.
In such a situation, the Brazilian Socialist Party considered the move to host Copa America 2021 'immoral' and attempted to pursue legal action to block staging the tournament. However, Brazil's Supreme Court rejected two injunctions to prevent the country from staging the 10-nation tournament.
Yet many in Brazil see the staging of the Copa at such a time as an affront. A few players of the Brazilian team initially refused to play at the tournament to voice their solidarity with their suffering countrymen. Argentine and Uruguayan players were also reportedly unhappy about the tournament staged in Brazil.
The fear factor is also playing on the minds of everyone. The Argentine captain, Lionel Messi, has said the fear of contracting the deadly virus is on the mind of every player in the team.
The players' anxiety was not helped by the news that 13 members of the Venezuelan contingent had tested positive on the eve of their Copa America 2021 opener. FIFPro, the world players' union, announced that it would stand behind any player who decides not to take part at the Copa.
It worries us because catching COVID is a risk for every single one of us ~Messi.
Copa America 2021 is on as of now
Such a tense atmosphere leading into the competition certainly begged the question: why not simply call it off? The primary reason for not doing that is because the Copa America is an enormous event for the confederation, bringing in funds in excess of $100-120 million.
The absence of the two invited teams and empty stands have already hit the revenue stream hard. And as has been the case for almost every major sporting event in these testing times, it was perceived that the loss would be far more if the competition did not go ahead at all.
As the football eventually continues under the shadow of these multifold issues amid the pandemic, one can only hope that Copa America 2021 proceeds without any further incidents.