At the Maracanã

Andrew Downie

One of my happiest memories of Brazilian football comes from about fifteen years ago, when Botafogo were playing Fluminense at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. For reasons that were unclear even then, officials had opened only part of the ground, leaving thousands of fans milling around outside in search of tickets. My friend managed to get two from a tout but as we lined up to push through the turnstiles there was a commotion to our left. A crowd was running towards the massive iron gates. Within seconds they had forced them open and were stampeding through. As the security guards scattered, I nudged my friend and we ran, joining the throng that charged into the half empty ground. When we sat down my friend asked: ‘What was all that for? We had tickets.’ ‘We’ll always remember this,’ I replied. ‘The day we stormed the gates of the Maracanã.’

Jock Stein’s dictum that ‘football without fans is nothing’ has been sorely tested over the last 18 months. In Europe the supporters are back in the stadiums and although the stands might not be full, it’s enough to make football seem like football again. In Brazil, it’s a different story. The Copa América, the oldest international tournament in the world, began this year on 13 June. But while Europe seems to be edging back to normality with mass vaccinations and falling death rates, in South America the pandemic is still raging. Peru has the worst overall death rate in the world. Paraguay recorded the world’s highest proportion of Covid deaths the week the Copa kicked off; Argentina saw its highest daily death toll on 22 June; three days earlier Brazil hit the grim landmark of half a million dead.

The Copa América wasn’t meant to be held in Brazil. It was scheduled for Colombia and Argentina but the former withdrew after a wave of social unrest and the latter pulled out when Covid cases surged. With two weeks to go before kick-off and no host for the tournament, the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) did what sporting bodies often do: it asked an authoritarian for help. CONMEBOL’s president, Alejandro Domínguez, likes to portray himself as a technocratic reformer and compared to his three predecessors – all of whom were indicted for racketeering conspiracy and corruption – he may be. But the decision to ally with Bolsonaro spoke volumes about his priorities.

CONMEBOL needed the tournament revenue; Brazil’s far-right president wanted to shift attention from growing protests against his regime and a Congressional enquiry into his handling of the pandemic. Announcing the decision, Domínguez declared the Copa América would be the ‘safest sporting event in the world’. It was a foolish boast then. It looks offensive now, halfway through a competition in which players or officials from at least four of the ten teams have tested positive for Covid-19.

The Copa has long been a high point of the region’s footballing calendar, second only to the World Cup in national interest. But this year’s tournament is an irrelevance. Its appeal was already on the wane, ruined by overexposure – this is the fourth Copa América in seven years – and mismanagement; eight of the ten teams qualify for the knock-out stages, filling the first round with meaningless matches and padding the quarter-finals with mediocrity. Even those not disgusted at the mere idea of a Copa América in the middle of a pandemic have switched off. From Chile to Uruguay to Venezuela, they are too tired, too angry, too focused on survival. CONMEBOL’s slogan for the Copa is ‘Vibra el Continente’ but the continent isn’t vibrating, it’s seething: at Domínguez, at Bolsonaro, at the Brazil players who hinted they might boycott the tournament only to back down with a mealy-mouthed statement that questioned CONMEBOL’s organisation but didn’t mention Bolsonaro or 500,000 dead Brazilians.

The action in these first two weeks, perhaps fittingly, has been second rate. Messi and Neymar are their usual brilliant selves but overall, especially when compared to the Euros, the football is slow and physical, ruined by fouls, diving and yellow cards. The pitches are poor – ‘unacceptable for top level athletes’ according to Brazil’s coach, Tite. And the atmosphere is funereal; with no supporters allowed inside, the enormous arenas seem haunted and otherworldly.

Even if Brazil win a tenth title on 10 July – and they are hot favourites to do so – the celebrations will be muted. There won’t be a parade. Bolsonaro will probably turn up and lift the trophy without a mask on. No one will look back in years to come and happily remember where they were in the Covid Copa of Brazil 2021.