'If someone dies, what will you do?' - Covid causing concern as Copa America cases rise

Brazil Venezuela Copa AmericaGetty

The potential for disruption to the Copa America due to the coronavirus pandemic has been present since long before the tournament kicked off.

For that very reason, Argentina ultimately declined to take up its hosting duties, and why Brazil's stepping in at the last minute despite suffering just as much, if not worse than its neighbour, caused such an uproar in the last few weeks.

And it took no time at all for those fears to become realised.

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Even before a single ball was kicked in anger, South America's flagship competition became dominated and tainted by the virus.

Barely 24 hours before appearing alongside Brazil in Sunday's tournament opener, Venezuela became the first – only the most optimistic among us would dare to say at this stage the only – team to see their Copa plans fly out of the window.

In a scene that has become grimly familiar across club competitions on the continent this past year, 13 Vinotinto players returned positive tests on Saturday, prompting the nation to call up no less than 15 replacements at the last minute in order to participate.

It was not quite Enzo Perez donning the River Plate gloves in the Copa Libertadores levels of farcical, but it left Venezuela as even more rank outsiders before the action had even began.

Ultimately, a team shorn of the likes of Tomas Rincon, Josef Martinez and Roberto Rosales held out gamely against the formidable hosts, before folding late on to a 3-0 defeat.

Josef Martinez Fred Venezuela Brazil GFXGetty/Goal

“It is clear that [the outbreak] affected things, but that doesn't stop me being happy with the will, the commitment and performance of those who played, I am not sad to lose,” Venezuela's Portuguese coach, Jose Pereiro, told reporters after the match.

“I would have liked to have my 11 starters and this defeat is brutal, but I am pleased with the boys because they did all they could on the pitch.”

The Vinotinto are not the only side feeling the effects of Covid. Bolivia were shorn of three players in Monday's defeat against Paraguay, including striker Marcelo Martins, while cases have also been detected in the Colombia and Peru delegations.

As of Tuesday, no less than 52 infections had been registered by Copa organisers, seemingly exposing claims prior to the tournament that the pandemic could be held in check in regions suffering acute sanitary crises long enough to stage a football tournament.

Martins, who plays his club football in Brazil for Cruzeiro and is one of Bolivia's biggest sporting icons, delivered stinging criticism against the authorities after learning of the current case tally.

“Thank you for this, CONMEBOL. It is completely your fault,” the 33-year-old said on Instagram while sharing a photo of one of his team-mates undergoing a nasal swab.

“If someone dies what will you do? What matters to you is money. Players' lives are not worth anything.”

Marcelo MartinsInstagram @Marcelo_Moreno

Nor apparently, are those of the workers contracted to make this Copa happen: they make up 19 of the 52 cases confirmed so far, a number that is only likely to continue to rise as the weeks roll by in Brazil.

Despite CONMEBOL's protestations that every precaution has been taken to ensure safety, the reality on the ground seems to indicate otherwise.

Eight of the Venezuela team which tested positive at the weekend played against Uruguay just four days prior in Tuesday's World Cup qualifier, as did Martins, who netted from the penalty spot for Bolivia to hold Chile to a 1-1 draw.

How can the organisers then ensure that the 15 players called up from across Venezuela and South America at a moment's notice by the Vinotinto are not also carrying the virus, coming as they are from outside the 'bubble'?

The prospect for further infections and even serious cases of illness is very real and must be controlled far more effectively than it has so far in this tournament.

It is clear just how keen those in charge at CONMEBOL were to go ahead with the Copa even in such adverse conditions.

Moves such as turning in the first place to Brazil, a country with almost half a million dead, allowing Argentina to fly back and forth from Buenos Aires to avoid spending time in the neighbouring nation and allowing near-infinite team and squad changes suggests a tacit acknowledgement that cases are going to continue to appear, and trying to limit their effect on the pitch as much as possible.

But this pandemic, especially with the steady spread of new variants such as the highly contagious Delta (already present among Brazil's 80,000 daily new cases) cannot be shrugged off as an occupational hazard.

Martins is right: players, staff and everyone at this Copa deserve to be protected from illness as much as possible – and so far in Brazil that has not been the case.