The 2021 Copa America was originally scheduled for Colombia and Argentina but will now take place in Brazil. Two weeks ago, Colombia was forced to withdraw as a consequence of a wave of social unrest. On Sunday, it was Argentina's turn to bow out, as the coronavirus pandemic is currently at its worst. So Brazil, also dealing with COVID complications in the country, emerged as the shock replacement, which brings up a host of questions.
Why were there initially two hosts?
There is no history of co-hosting in the Copa, and it does seem bizarre that the competition was set for two countries at opposite ends of a giant continent -- the flight between respective capitals Buenos Aires and Bogota takes six hours.
All of this had to do with politics. Remember, this is an extra Copa, so it did not have to follow the normal sequence of host nations. This one was up for grabs.
Argentina wanted it as part of its campaign to co-host the 2030 World Cup, ostensibly with Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile. The plan is to celebrate the centenary of the world's biggest football tournament, first played in Uruguay in 1930. Uruguay lacks the cities to stage a modern World Cup on its own, so Argentina came in as a senior partner. The fan violence that prevented Argentina from staging the second leg of the 2018 Copa Libertadores final between River Plate and Boca Juniors -- a match that was ultimately played in Madrid -- left Argentina looking for a chance to wipe the slate clean and boost their 2030 bid by staging this extra Copa America.
This left Colombia profoundly displeased. It was already standing aside for the World Cup bid. Theoretically, it is the next South American country in line, but waived this right to support the joint 2030 campaign. Standing aside for this Copa would be too much. It has only had the Copa America once, in 2001, while Argentina staged it as recently as 2011.
CONMEBOL came up with the diplomatic solution of splitting the tournament between the two -- an arrangement with serious consequences. In recent years, the Copa has had 12 countries (10 South American teams, plus two guests) in three groups of four. The pandemic caused organizers to change that to two groups of six -- one in Argentina, one in Colombia, with the top four qualifying for the quarterfinals. The situation became even more absurd when the guests -- Australia and Qatar -- were forced to pull out when they had World Cup qualifiers were scheduled for June. So now there are two groups of five, with only the bottom team of each group being eliminated.
Why is the tournament going ahead?
As a result of the pandemic, South America is way behind on its marathon World Cup qualification campaign. Using this time to catch up on qualifiers would seem to make common sense -- until you look at CONMEBOL's finances.
The Copa is a huge event for the confederation, usually bringing in some $120 million. This one, without the invited teams, without fans in the stadiums, is set to take a loss. But the loss will be far more painful if the competition does not go ahead at all. Contracts have been signed, and -- as far as CONMEBOL see it -- everything has to be done to ensure that content is delivered.
And why Brazil?
Brazil was the next best option for two simple reasons. First, because there were no real alternatives. The U.S. was not a genuine emergency option, and not just because relations between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF have been strained ever since the joint 2016 Copa. More practically, there were questions of logistics. There was insufficient time, for example, to sort out visas for a tournament outside of South America.
Other countries, such as Chile, may have been able to stage the Colombian half of the competition. But at short notice, the full 28 games might have been too much. With its size and its stadiums, Brazil was probably the only option to step in and take care of the entire tournament in its established time zone.
Brazil made itself available for other reasons, too. CONMEBOL made a point of thanking president Jair Bolsonaro for allowing the tournament to go ahead, with the Brazilian leader saying the country was keen to play host even though a Supreme Court judge there asked him to explain his surprise decision.
If Brazil is indeed the host, Bolsonaro said the host cities would be Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Goiania and Cuiaba.
What has the reaction been like in Brazil?
Largely negative. There could be an attempt to get the Supreme Court to block the competition, while the governor of Pernambuco, Paulo Camara, has said that matches will not take place in his state.
Brazil's domestic football goes on. But the Copa, with its international symbolism, appears to be much more controversial. With a COVID death toll over 460,000 and rising at almost 2,000 a day, some in Brazil are seeing this Copa as an affront. It could prove incendiary.
With around 20% of the population having received the first dose of vaccine, those who oppose Bolsonaro are more confident of taking to the streets. At the weekend, for the first time, there were mass demonstrations against him in all major cities. There is widespread discontent at the way the government has handled the pandemic, which is likely to rise still further by president Bolsonaro's willingness to stage this tournament.
The 2021 Copa could prove a rallying point for protest - as was the case with the Confederations Cup eight years ago before Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup.
Is this the end of the problem?
Not necessarily. The interesting thing now is the reaction of the players. Are they willing to go along with the competition? Argentina players said they were not happy with the move and threatened a boycott, according to ESPN sources, although Sergio Aguero said they would play on despite being unhappy with the change.
Uruguay players Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani also casted doubt on the wisdom of holding the competition. Furthermore, FIFPro, the world players' union, has expressed concern, and will give support to any player who decides not to compete in this Copa.