Football: Argentina, Chile coaches worried about Brazilian Copa America

Brazil was announced as the new host of the Copa America on May 30, less than two weeks before the tournament kicks off. PHOTO: REUTERS

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Argentina and Chile's football coaches on Wednesday (June 2) hit out at the decision to play the Copa America in coronavirus-wracked Brazil, as they prepare for a World Cup qualifier before the South American extravaganza begins.

Argentina, who entertain Chile on Thursday in Santiago del Estero, were due to host the Copa alongside Colombia but last month both countries were stripped of the right by South American football's governing body Conmebol. It nixed Colombia on May 20 because of violent anti-government protests, and Argentina on Sunday because of a surge of Covid-19.

Instead, less than two weeks before the tournament kicks off, Brazil was announced as the new host last Sunday.

"If we have to go, we'll go and play and try to make the Copa the best it can be," said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni. "But there are still a lot of uncertainties about accommodation. Honestly, it's alarming and worrying. Brazil is not the best place."

South America is currently the worst affected region in the world by the pandemic.

The six countries currently experiencing the highest relative Covid-19 death rates in the world are all in South America.

"Argentina was pulled out due to logical health reasons, as Colombia was pulled out, and it will surely be a very difficult situation to digest," said Scaloni.

Yet before the Copa kicks off on June 13, at a venue yet to be decided, there will be two full rounds of South American World Cup qualifying involving all 10 member federations of Conmebol hosting a match.

But the prospect of bringing those teams to a single location with players arriving from their clubs around the world has left many questioning the wisdom of pushing ahead with the Copa.

"It seems like a huge, giant risk to me, because for me health comes first, a long way ahead" of everything else, said Chile's Uruguayan coach Martin Lasarte.

With more than 465,000 Covid deaths, Brazil is second only to the United States, while its 16.5 million infections is the third highest tally in the world.

Argentina, by contrast, has recorded 78,000 deaths and 3.8 million cases, although its population is just over a fifth of the size of Brazil's.

The coronavirus curve in Brazil has declined recently, from a weekly average of more than 3,000 deaths a day in April to about 1,800. But experts say state and local officials lifted restrictions too soon, with just 10.5 per cent of its 212 million people fully vaccinated.

They warn rising infections and hospital occupancy rates indicate a new surge is coming, fuelled by the spread of new variants.

"It's impossible to describe the insanity of trying to hold an event of this magnitude here now," said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez.

"The worst phases (of the pandemic in Brazil) in 2020 were three to four times smaller than what we're seeing today. We have this false sense that things have gotten better. The reality is, we're still in a terrible phase of very rapid spread," he told AFP.

Two of Scaloni's players - goalkeeper Franco Armani and full-back Gonzalo Montiel - did not travel to the game, around 1,000km north of Buenos Aires, having contracted the coronavirus.

Veteran Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal did not even travel to Argentina as he is receiving treatment for Covid in hospital in the Chilean capital Santiago.

Argentina are currently second in the single South American World Cup qualifying group after four games, two points behind Brazil, the only side with a perfect record.

Chile are down in sixth having won only one match so far.

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