The Copa América has not yet started, but the Bolsonaro government already treats the unexpected arrival of the tournament in Brazil as a victory. “Consistency has gained!”, The Minister of the Civil House (Cabinet of the Presidency), Luiz Eduardo Ramos, celebrated on social networks after President Jair Bolsonaro announced that the South American national team championship – suspended in Argentina and Colombia two weeks before its start — it will be held in Brazil. The commemoration is not accidental. For Professor Flávio de Campos, a researcher on the sociocultural history of football at the University of São Paulo, the fact that the Brazilian Government has accepted the emergency request of the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) serves as a “smokescreen” in a When he has to face social protests, vaccination against covid-19 is delayed, his allies are forced to testify in a parliamentary commission of inquiry on the management of the pandemic and his popularity has decreased, while that of possible opponents in the 2022 elections has been strengthened.
“The smoke screen is to make an absolutely inopportune event at a time when the Government is cornered. Bolsonaro is on an electoral campaign and will play with everything he has to maintain his popularity. It is natural that he uses the most popular sport in the country politically ”, says the researcher.
By “cornered,” the historian refers to the most recent crises that Bolsonaro and his main allies have faced in Brasilia in recent weeks. In particular, the parliamentary commission of inquiry into the pandemic, which investigates possible crimes committed by the Executive in the fight against covid-19. Despite scientists pointing to the risks of holding the championship at a time when hospitalizations are increasing, the America’s Cup would help divert attention from the pandemic. “Bolsonaro’s only commitment to football is to use it to improve his own image,” says Campos.
He also believes that Bolsonaro hopes that the tournament will eclipse the repercussions of the demonstrations calling for the impeachment of the president, the investigations by the Federal Police against his Minister of the Environment for alleged illegal smuggling of wood and the most recent polls on the 2022 elections, that put former President Lula ahead of Bolsonaro in a possible second round.
It is not the first time that Bolsonaro has used soccer to protect his popularity. His appearances with t-shirts of various teams are common and, in June 2019, the president invited former judge Sergio Moro to a Flamengo match in Brasilia to applaud him in the midst of the crisis of the jet leak, a series of conversations leaked on the Telegram application about the actions, decisions and positions of the prosecutors of the anti-corruption operation Car wash in which the then Minister of Justice was one of the main protagonists. A month later, this time booed, Bolsonaro went to the Maracana to pose with the Copa América trophy and the Brazilian team, champion of the last edition, as he had done a year before with Palmeiras when he was champion of the Brazilian league, before to be elected president.
Football as a political weapon
The sports historian also remembers other political figures, such as the fascist Benito Mussolini, who constantly used football to try to dribble the government crises. Mussolini promoted his dictatorship using the World Cup in Italy in 1934. In Brazil, the military dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici took advantage of the popularity of the Brazilian team during the 1970 World Cup: “He unleashed this patriotism with the national team, which [el periodista y dramaturgo] Nelson Rodrigues called it ‘homeland of football boots’. Only now is the death of football boots. It is an attitude of a demagogue, of someone who is cornered and has no scruples ”, criticizes the researcher.
In defense of holding the event in the South American country most affected by covid-19, Bolsonaro and his team justified the decision as “consistent”, since there are other soccer tournaments that are being played. “We are in the middle of a pandemic, but the Brazilian league is being played, in which 20 teams from the first division and 20 from the second are participating. I don’t know why people are against the event, if the matches of the national league, the state, the Libertadores and the South American are played ”, argued Minister Luiz Eduardo Ramos. The president, for his part, attributed the criticism received to the employees of the Globo station, which does not have the rights to broadcast the tournament this year, but the SBT station. Galvão Bueno, Globo’s narrator and the most popular figure in the Brazilian sports press, asked in his Monday program that “someone have a crisis of common sense and that this madness does not happen.”
Not only the station’s journalists have questioned the holding of the tournament in Brazil, but also doctors and epidemiologists, who have questioned the government’s position by agreeing to host a soccer tournament of continental proportions at a time when the country is seeing a new escalation of COVID-19 infections and, with more than 460,000 deaths, is on the way to a third wave. “The fact that much of the press has spoken is a great positive point. Thus, we managed to form a critical mass that is accustomed to following football, dissociating it from politics, ”says Campos.
Late on Wednesday night, Conmebol confirmed that the matches will take place in four host cities —Brasilia, Cuiabá, Goiânia and Rio de Janeiro— and released the calendar for the tournament, which will last one month. Although the mayors and governors of the venues defend the adoption of strict security protocols, only the mayor of Cuiabá, Emanuel Pinheiro, has declared that he is against holding the championship in the city. “We are living a pandemic and the time is not right out of respect for the thousands of deaths and confirmed cases,” he criticized after the announcement.
For the historian, the comparisons between the realization of the club championships and the America’s Cup are “false symmetries that build the argument with the purpose of relieving the president of his responsibilities.” It should be remembered that the South American tournament implies that a country simultaneously receives delegations from ten other countries, unlike what happens in the other aforementioned championships. In addition, data from Conmebol itself show that the Cup is a less economically relevant tournament than the Libertadores and, therefore, would have less impact if it were canceled, which undermines the comparison made by the Government. In 2019, the entity raised 118 million dollars with the national team tournament in Brazil, while the tournament between South American clubs raised 300 million.
The Copa América 2021 starts on June 13. The Brazilian Football Confederation, to which Conmebol has thanked its mediation in the negotiations and to which the Government assigned the mission of negotiating with the States to determine the venues and parties, has not yet ruled on the matter. On the other hand, the Supreme Federal Court magistrate Ricardo Lewandowski, after receiving requests from deputies and parties to prevent the tournament, has asked the Presidency of the Republic to give explanations about the celebration of the America’s Cup in Brazil.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.