Why is this year’s Copa America failing to draw crowds?

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Al Jazeera reports

The world’s oldest football competition has lost its luster because to COVID, politicization, and the European Champions.

Diego Santos, a manager at a renowned Belo Horizonte bar-restaurant, squints up at a dimly lit television.

Santos is referring to the lack of interest in this year’s Copa America, which is football’s oldest event, and is taking place in Brazil.

Brazil seemed to have scored unexpectedly. Santos glances around for confirmation, but few, if any, of the sprinkling of spectators are watching, let alone applauding, the match.

Santos’ words are drowned out by the stillness, which hangs in the air like the great Pele jumping for a header.

However, this isn’t always the case. The elegant bar-restaurant is one of several in the shadow of the cavernous Mineirao, the stadium most known for hosting Brazil’s most infamous athletic humiliation: a 7-1 World Cup defeat to Germany in 2014.

This is a wonderful place to watch football, since it sits on the shore of Pampulha Lake and has a plethora of TVs. The stadium was packed two years ago when Brazil, the five-time world champions, won the Copa America on home soil.

This year, the atmosphere is calm.

“It was fantastic two years ago,” Santos told Al Jazeera, recalling long lines of yellow and green-clad supporters outside and security officers turning away revelers.

“This year, though, no one is questioning if we’ll show the games or not. Nobody gives a damn. More people are wearing home team jerseys than the Selecao, and I’ve been asked to broadcast the European Championships more than the Copa América.”

More apathy than adoration

The coronavirus epidemic is the most evident cause of the absence of atmosphere. Brazil has recorded over 18.5 million cases, with 518,066 fatalities, the world’s second-highest death toll behind the United States.

More people die each day from COVID in Brazil than in any other country, owing to a delayed vaccination campaign and the government’s refusal to push for social distancing measures.

COVID isn’t the only reason why people aren’t attending the Copa America.

Everything from broadcast rights to the renowned yellow football jersey has been heavily politicized.

Furthermore, Brazil’s ongoing domestic leagues, as well as a European Championship featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, World Player of the Year Robert Lewandowski, and world champions France, have resulted in an oversaturated football calendar in which the Brazilian national team is no longer the most compelling draw.

Even a South American tournament’s novelty is becoming thin. Although the Euros are being contested for the first time since 2016, the Copa America has been held four times since 2015.

All of these elements combine to ensure that the event generates more apathy among Brazilians than admiration.

The Selecao’s 3-0 triumph over Venezuela in the tournament opener on June 13 had the lowest national TV audience for an opening match in the competition’s history, as it was played without supporters in the stadium, as have all games thus far. Since then, the ratings have scarcely improved.

Cristiano Ferreira, a soldier in Belem, 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) north of Belo Horizonte, said, “It’s hard to claim COVID is the only cause.”

“Earlier this year, we had a major [health] issue, but the city is now quieter. A large number of people have returned to the streets, and bars have reopened. It’s almost as though it’s nothing out of the ordinary. People here are passionate about football, thus the local teams Remo and Paysandu are frequently discussed. But I haven’t seen much interest in the Selecao or the Copa America.”

Brazilian streets are traditionally adorned with paint and ticker-tape, automobiles covered in national flags, and the Brazil team shirt is near-omnipresent, especially during World Cups.

There is little to imply a big tournament is taking place this year, with the streets barren and the renowned yellow shirt now linked with a show of support for Brazil’s polarizing far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

“Having small flags on the streets and everyone wearing the shirt is quite typical here in Belem,” Ferreira says.

It’s also common for bars to have large screens
broadcasting the games live,
although I haven’t seen that this year.

‘Like a bad joke’

Given that the Copa America was intended to be hosted in Colombia and Argentina but was canceled owing to civil unrest and COVID-19, respectively, such a situation should not come as a complete surprise.

Bolsonaro proposed to organize the 28-game tournament despite the recommendations of the country’s skeptical health experts, seeking a weapon of mass diversion from his personal and the country’s numerous issues.

Bolsonaro is no new to criticism, and he has received a lot of it. Several major corporate sponsors pulled out, and opposition lawmakers dubbed the event a “death project.”

Walter Casagrande, a 1986 World Cup player for Brazil, accused the president of “genocide.”

Before issuing a rambling statement confirming participation, the national team hinted that it may even refuse to participate.

The number of positive tests has been worrying, despite the fact that tournament organizers CONMEBOL, football’s regional governing body, pledged that all 65 members of each of the 10 national delegations would be vaccinated.

As of Friday, 166 persons have tested positive, according to CONMEBOL and the Ministry of Health: 115 outsourced service workers, 31 team personnel, 17 players, and three organizers.

While the players from Brazil declined to speak up, Marcelo Moreno of Bolivia did.

Following his positive test, the veteran striker expressed his displeasure on Instagram, writing: “Thanks to Conmebol for that. It’s entirely your fault! What will you do if someone you care about passes away? Money is everything that matters to you. Is a player’s life meaningless?”

He eventually apologized and blamed his press officer, but not before a one-match suspension and a $20,000 fine were imposed on him.

Andryo Machado, a physical education instructor and personal trainer in Rio de Janeiro, which will host the final, told Al Jazeera, “Having the event in the middle of a pandemic is completely ridiculous.”

“Despite the fact that there are so little safeguards in place here to combat the virus and its variations, there has been talk of allowing supporters into the Maracana for the final. It’s as though it’s a horrible joke.”

Soap opera beats football

After numerous potential host towns declined to be considered, two of the tournament’s five sites were chosen from Rio.

Manaus, the rainforest city that became the first Brazilian municipality to dig mass graves last year, is one of them. It was just six months ago that it faced an emergency when oxygen supplies ran out, resulting in a crisis and a parliamentary inquiry.

When the city, which is located in the middle of the Amazon jungle, was mentioned as a possible host, mayor David Almeida said, “It’s not time to rejoice, it’s time to vaccinate.”

However, Rony Brasil, a Manaus cab driver, has observed a return to normalcy in recent weeks.

He went to a nearby pub to meet pals last week when Brazil met Colombia, but not to see Neymar and Co.

“When we arrived at the pub to see Flamengo, there were eight tables full of people. When Flamengo’s game concluded, the Brazil game began, but only four of the eight tables were left. Brasil informed Al Jazeera that everyone else had gone home.

“The Copa America doesn’t attract much attention here, at least in Manaus. It is insufficiently competitive. It’s not like Europe, where there are a plethora of excellent teams. Only Brazil, Argentina, and perhaps Uruguay remain.”

The Manaus bar appears to be a microcosm of the country, based on the number of visitors.

Globo, Brazil’s largest broadcaster, lost the Copa America rights to competitor SBT. It did, however, retain a greater watching viewership throughout Brazil’s four group games.

Despite the Selecao’s 4-0 victory over Peru, more than twice as many viewers tuned in to see a religious soap drama.

The tournament has lost roughly 60% of its viewership reach since 2019, according to data from the Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics.

While Brazilians believe that interest has been low so far, they also say that if their nation makes it to the final, things would definitely change.

Brazil and Argentina are set to play in the final on July 10 after finishing first and second in their respective groups.

But first, Brazil must defeat Chile on Friday.

“No one cares right now,” bar-restaurant manager Santos remarked, “but if Brazil goes all the way, the supporters will start to appear.”

“And if it’s against Argentina in the final, you can bet they’ll put on their yellow shirts and come watch.”


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