- Gerardo Lissardy
- BBC News World
The decision of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, to host the Copa América of soccer in his country is a difficult bet to understand at first glance.
Since the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) revealed on Monday that Brazil would host the event, which was originally supposed to take place in Argentina and Colombia, criticism of all kinds has rained.
Many remember that Brazil has one of the worst outbreaks of coronavirus in the world, with more than 465,000 deaths and an average of more than 61,000 new daily cases reported in the last week.
Experts on epidemics and infections warn that the Copa América may contribute to worsening the situation, by generating more activity and crowds when the occupancy of intensive care beds exceeds 80% in various parts of Brazil, including the four sub-venues of the tournament: Brasilia, Goiás, Mato Grosso and Rio de Janeiro.
The situation is so delicate from a health and political point of view that governors of other states of the country, such as the most populated, São Paulo, warned that would avoid organize matches of the South American national team competition.
The federal government itself appeared to hesitate in the face of criticism, but Bolsonaro defended the decision on Tuesday, seeking to separate it from the pandemic: “I am sorry for the deaths, but we have to live,” he said.
Some analysts see this decision as another risky move by the far-right president, but others consider that there is a cold calculation behind it.
“Bolsonaro’s bet is to treat the championship as the great event that signals a new phase in the country, overcoming the pandemic,” Antonio Lavareda, a renowned Brazilian expert in political science and opinion polls, tells BBC Mundo.
Conmebol expects the Copa América to begin on June 13 in Brazil, after Colombia lost the role of host amid a wave of protests against the government and Argentina decided not to organize it due to an increase in covid-19 cases.
However, Bolsonaro also faces growing political difficulties.
The president’s approval rating fell to 24% in May, according to a Datafolha poll, six points less than in March, and his unpopularity was noted over the weekend in the largest street protests against him since the start of the pandemic.
Bolsonaro tried since last year to minimize the risks of the coronavirus without heeding the advice of science, and that attitude seems to turn against him now.
An investigative commission in the Senate on the management of the pandemic, whose sessions are broadcast to the population, has heard testimonies of how the government missed opportunities to acquire millions of doses of vaccines against the coronavirus last year.
The vaccination campaign is progressing slowly in Brazil: as of Tuesday, only 10% of the population had received all the prescribed doses and 22% had received at least one.
In this scenario, the Bolsonaro government this week celebrated the fact that the Brazilian economy grew 1.2% in the first quarter of the year and reached its pre-pandemic level, something that surprised analysts.
“Bolsonaro is betting on the fact that the Brazilian economy would be recovering and the Conmebol championship would serve to signal a recovery in the mood of society,” Lavareda explains.
Although he denies that there is evidence on the political impact of events of this type, the expert points out that soccer “always has the ability to partially divert the focus of people’s attention.”
In a message on the radio and television network this Wednesday that was received with cacerolas in different cities of Brazil, Bolsonaro highlighted the growth of GDP and said that all Brazilians who want to will be vaccinated before the end of the year.
He also maintained that he accepted the holding of the Copa América in Brazil “following the same protocol as the Copa Libertadores and the World Cup Qualifiers”, which are played without an audience in the stadiums.
However, bringing the Copa América to Brazil may imply a political cost for the Brazilian president, some experts say.
Cristiano Noronha, political analyst at the Arko Advice consultancy in Brasilia, assesses that “the risk that Bolsonaro faces is that we have a significant increase in cases” of coronavirus.
If that happens, “they will certainly remember this measure and that in the end it ended up passing a wrong message to the population,” Noronha tells BBC Mundo.
The opposition to Bolsonaro is already preparing protests against the holding of the Copa América in Brazil and called for a new day of demonstrations for June 19, when the tournament would be in full swing.
“We don’t want a cup, we want a vaccine,” read a banner placed this Wednesday in front of the Maracana stadium in Rio.
The pulse in the Brazilian streets is seen as a preamble to next year’s elections, when Bolsonaro is expected to seek re-election by facing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Leftist Lula’s popularity has grown in recent months and a Datafolha poll in May indicated that, in an eventual second round, he would win 55% of the vote to 32% for Bolsonaro.
Vera Chaia, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, believes it is possible that Bolsonaro will gain some support if the Copa América proceeds normally and Brazil is champion.
But he affirms that the priorities of Brazilian society are now different than in 2019, when that happened for the last time in the same country.
“What most Brazilians want is vaccines,” he says. “If they have the conditions to organize a championship in four capitals, they could very well organize a perfect distribution of vaccines for the Brazilian people.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.