Brazil’s Supreme Court has ruled the country can host the Copa America despite the coronavirus pandemic, paving the way for the struggling soccer tournament in three days.
In a special virtual session held on Thursday, a majority of the 11 High Court judges ruled against the plaintiffs who argued that the South American championships posed an unacceptable health risk.
Several judges, however, ordered the government to take additional security measures.
“It is the responsibility of (state governors and mayors) to establish the appropriate health protocols and ensure that they are followed in order to avoid a ‘Copavirus’, with new infections and the emergence of new variants,” wrote the judge. Carmen Lucia in her decision.
The three cases brought to court were the last – and perhaps the last – watershed moment for organizers, who appear determined to win this edition of the world’s oldest ongoing international football tournament despite the odds.
Already delayed for a year due to the pandemic, the Copa America nearly collapsed when the original co-hosts Colombia and Argentina failed at the last minute – the first due to violent protests anti-government, the second because of a wave of COVID-19 cases.
As time is running out until this Sunday’s opener, Brazil stepped in as emergency hosts for the 10 Nations tournament last week.
But the decision is hugely controversial: Brazil is also reeling from COVID-19, which has killed nearly 480,000 people in the country, just behind the United States.
Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has regularly defied expert advice on containing the pandemic, gave his blessing to host the tournament.
He praised the court ruling and predicted that Brazil would “slaughter” Venezuela in the opening game.
But epidemiologists warn Brazil is currently facing a new wave of cases and say staging a major international sporting event could exacerbate the health crisis.
“It is impossible to describe the folly of trying to organize an event of this magnitude here now,” infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez told AFP news agency.
The applications to the Supreme Court were lodged by the national union of metalworkers, the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and the Workers’ Party (PT) of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, likely opponent of Bolsonaro in the presidential elections of next year.
They argued that the tournament risked exacerbating the health crisis and “violate basic rights to life and health”.
Bolsonaro and South American football confederation CONMEBOL insist the tournament will be safe.
Brazilian officials are demanding matches be played without supporters, including the final on July 10 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Teams will undergo a mandatory COVID-19 test every 48 hours. Their movements will be restricted and they will travel to matches in the four host cities on chartered flights.
However, the health ministry on Monday backed down from plans to require all players, coaches and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said it was too late to ensure immunity and post-vaccine side effects “could compromise player performance.”
The organizers are faced with many negative reactions. Two main sponsors, Mastercard and beer giant Ambev, said on Wednesday they were removing their marks from the tournament. A third alcoholic beverage company, Diageo, followed suit Thursday.
And many players and coaches criticized the event, including Uruguayan Luis Suarez, Argentinian Sergio “Kun” Aguero and the entire Brazilian national team.
Neymar and his team – as well as Brazil coach Tite – were said to have been caught off guard by the news their country would welcome, and there has been talk of boycotting.
They eventually stopped before that, but were blunt in their criticism of CONMEBOL.
“We are against the organization of the Copa America,” they said Tuesday in a joint statement.