Conmebol found a simple solution for its recent problems with the upcoming Copa América. It just wasn’t a very good one. Weeks of anti-government protests in Colombia, that have left at least 43 dead, forced South American football’s governing body to move the tournament from the co-host country, to Argentina, a nation that has been brought to its knees by Covid-19.
At the time of writing, roughly two weeks before the tournament is scheduled to kick off in Buenos Aires, only just more than 5% of Argentina’s population is fully vaccinated.
While in the United States the pandemic is, practically speaking, over, there are around 72 daily new positive cases per 100,000 in Argentina. That’s far worse per capita than India, which has 17 per 100,000. No single nation’s tragedy diminishes the horror of another’s, but to stage an international tournament in the face of hundreds of daily coronavirus deaths is a disgrace.
Argentina president Alberto Fernández, who has characterized the present as “worst moment in the pandemic”, should be embarrassed. As should Conmebol, which must cancel the tournament; this is no time to celebrate throughout South America. Some reports suggest the tournament could be moved stateside, but there is no clarity yet.
It’s not as if Argentina couldn’t use the economic boost – its economy contracted 10% due to the pandemic – but the Covid-19 situation is far more dire. Nearly 12,000 hotels and restaurants have closed in the past year. The health system is collapsing. A 22-year-old woman died on a hospital floor, awaiting treatment, while friends of government officials get the fast track to a vaccine. Last week, River Plate had as many as 25 positive coronavirus cases among the team. Their players are now healthy but their team’s bus driver died. And worst of all, the virus has claimed 75,000 lives. And now, for a second year, Argentinians are locked down at home. Schools are closed. But somehow it has been deemed appropriate for an international football tournament to be played.
Of course, in Argentina, football has a history of being weaponized to sedate the masses. It’s straight out the playbook of our authoritarian past.
Like Hitler’s staging of the Olympic Games in 1936, Argentina hosted the World Cup under an authoritarian regime – that of Jorge Videla in 1978. It was an event engineered by the government to inspire nationalism in a population beaten down by political repression, the forceful taking of newborn babies from dissident mothers and the “disappearance” of between 5,000 and 30,000 people. Argentina ended up winning the tournament, but it wasn’t easy. Against Peru, they had to win by four goals to advance to the final stages; they won 6-0. Dodgy dealings could never be proven, but Peru had only conceded six goals in their last five games and Argentina had scored six in their last five.
My father, then 13, was there that day in the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito in Rosario to see Peru vanquished. He said he could feel the concrete swaying under his feet, the fans lost in euphoria, jumping up and down in rhythm. Or so he remembers. It was real to him then and it still is. As an adult, he realized the truth. We all know it now. But, the government’s plan worked anyways. The memory still warms the heart.
It’s something I’ve always wanted to feel, after so much disappointment following the national team. I got close when, in the 2014 World Cup final, Gonzalo Higuaín, darted in through two central defenders and put one past Manuel Neuer. I lost it. But he was off-side. And very clearly so. My voice was already gone by the time I realized.
Today, as my country reels under Covid-19, I could care less. To use the words of Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata, I don’t care if 11 millionaires chasing a ball can pop it into a net. I don’t care about the narrative. I don’t care about Lionel Messi. He can’t heal our wounds. We keep losing family and friends; he’ll keep making money. I want to know that my country is safe. I want my sister to have the normal teenage life she deserves. I want my parents, my friends and all of us to be vaccinated. Lionel Messi, Conmebol, Fernández: is this the legacy you want? No dejen que la pelota se manche.