SAO PAULO — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wants this month’s Copa America soccer tournament to be held in his country despite the raging coronavirus pandemic.
The far-right leader and his administration are under fire from lawmakers and health experts for saying Tuesday they want to host the event even though Brazil has the second most deaths from COVID-19.
South American soccer body CONMEBOL chose Brazil as a replacement host on Monday after Argentina was dropped because of the spread of the virus in that country. The other co-host, Colombia, was removed on May 20 amid street protests against the country’s president, Iván Duque.
Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, cast doubts on the event on Monday, but Bolsonaro said he and his ministers agree Brazil can host the tournament despite the low rate of vaccinations in the country.
“If it depends on the federal government, Copa America will take place in Brazil,” Bolsonaro said in Brasilia. “I was asked by the Brazilian soccer confederation yesterday. From our part it is all positive. In whatever depends on me, the cabinet ministers, including our health minister, it is settled. It will happen.”
More than 463,000 people have died with COVID-19 in Brazil, second only to the United States. Analysts expect another wave of the disease to hit the country by late June. Many hospitals have more than 80% of their intensive-care units occupied by infected people.
Thousands protested against Bolsonaro on the streets of more than 80 cities on Saturday.
CONMEBOL said the Copa America in Brazil will start on June 13 and end on July 10, as was planned in the previous format. None of the host cities have been announced, but some governors and mayors have already voiced opposition to being part of the tournament. Others have said matches can take place only under strict health protocols.
The Brazilian soccer confederation did not respond a request for comment from The Associated Press.
South American teams are already training for the tournament and some World Cup qualifying matches scheduled for this week.
Like other continental tournaments, Copa America was initially scheduled for 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic forced it to be postponed.
Lawmakers and political parties say they will take Bolsonaro’s decision to host the tournament to court. Some of them are also stepping up the pressure in a Senate inquiry on the president’s handling of the pandemic.
Sen. Renan Calheiros appealed to Brazil striker Neymar at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Neymar, I want to send you a word. Do not agree with this Copa America in Brazil. That is not the championship we need to play now. We need to play the championship of vaccination,” Calheiros said. “You need to score some goals so this scoreboard can be changed.”
Less than 11% of the Brazilian population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.
The chairman of the inquiry, Sen. Omar Aziz, agreed Brazil should not host Copa America. The country organized the tournament in 2019 and its national team won the title.
“If Brazil wins this, what will it change for us at this moment? We have nothing to celebrate, we have much to be sorry for,” Aziz said.
Sen. Eduardo Girão, a close Bolsonaro ally, was one of the few to defend the decision.
“There is a big politicization of the tournament,” Girão said. “We should celebrate Copa America coming here again. It is not a random tournament.”
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