The social explosion of Colombia has reached soccer. The images of players rubbing their eyes and throats while battling to finish their matches amid tear gas that came from outside the stadium, amidst the din of protests against the government of Iván Duque that have already been serving for more than two weeks. , were broadcast live across the continent. Although the days of the Copa Libertadores for clubs that were played this week were intended to project normality, they only managed to send a disturbing message from the country that is to host the Copa América for national teams next month.
Colombia accumulates more than 40 deaths in the framework of all kinds of protests, riots and clashes between protesters and the public force. Despite the delicate internal situation, the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) has ratified the holding of the oldest national team tournament in the world for the first time jointly in two countries, Colombia and Argentina. Both also face a critical moment due to the rebound in COVID-19 infections, although they have separate vaccination programs that are not advancing at the required speed.
The idea of the managers has been to celebrate this unusual edition between June 13 and July 10, in parallel to the European Championship to unify calendars on both continents. But it has been fraught with trauma. It was going to be played last year and was postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic, like the Eurocup. Now the social upheaval is added in the Andean country, which must host 15 games, including the final in Barranquilla. The Colombian headquarters “remains firm” and “was never in doubt” for Conmebol, according to sources from the institution in statements to AFP. However, the uncertainty is increasing.
When the organization of the tournament has been questioned, Duque has come out to point out that the Copa América sends an important message at a time when an economic reactivation is needed. “You have to see that the Eurocup will be played at the same times with vaccines, health bubbles and others. It would be absurd if the Copa América is not played here when the Eurocup is going to be played ”, affirmed a few days ago the president, when the protests were barely reaching their first week. Since then, the situation has escalated. “The ratification by Conmebol is a regional support to unite our nations and to see this event as a factor of union and peace. We will continue to monitor the situation in our country, ”said the Minister of Sports, Ernesto Lucena.
That optimism collides with a pressing reality, and a wave of outside criticism for the crackdown on protesters. Both the pandemic and the protests continue to cast a long shadow over the tournament. In the midst of the delicate third wave, which threatens a hospital collapse, places like Bogotá have canceled soccer games. Several Colombian clubs had already had to travel to other cities to play the final stages of the domestic league, and those participating in international tournaments had been forced to play at home in Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru the week before. The idea of taking out those games was not to put the Copa América at risk.
The Libertadores, the most important club tournament on the continent, however, could not escape social unrest. On Thursday, the tear gas forced the duel between América de Cali and the Brazilian Atlético Mineiro (1-3) to be interrupted at least five times, precisely transferred to Barranquilla. The day before, the protests in that same Caribbean city, in the north of the country, led to the suspension of the duel between Junior and the Argentine River Plate (1-1) for minutes, while the match between Atlético Nacional de Medellín and Nacional de Uruguay ( 0-0), in Pereira, it was played an hour late by the protesters who prevented the Uruguayan team from leaving their hotel. The sports balance for Colombian clubs has been very poor, but that’s the least of it. “It is not normal to come to play a soccer game in such an unstable situation with what the Colombian people are experiencing. It was not normal neither in the previous one, nor during the game, it was played in very uncomfortable situations. We cannot look the other way, ”said River’s coach, Marcelo Gallardo.
In the current circumstances, football seems almost like a provocation for the protesters. The street is not for parties. “It was known that because of the social crisis you couldn’t play. Conmebol decided to insist to show that something could be disputed here and convince unbelievers that a Copa América could be held. Clearly, this experiment was diametrically opposite to what they expected ”, argues journalist and sports analyst Nicolás Samper. Remember that the famous Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti said that you play as you live. “In Colombia we are playing as we live: amid tear gas, protests, police abuse and institutional brutality,” he concludes.
The call for football not to continue as if nothing was happening has emerged from various sectors of society. “As citizens, rather than footballers, we want to express our full support for the clamor expressed by the Colombian people in their protest and we join those voices that ask for a more just, equitable and inclusive country, in which we are all guaranteed, without distinction, the minimum conditions to live with dignity, “said in a statement the Colombian Association of Professional Footballers, Acolfutpro. In their statement, they ask clubs and managers that until the public order situation that affects the country is resolved, “and puts our integrity at risk,” local league matches are not scheduled.
The institutional discourse is aimed at celebrating the national team tournament as it takes place, points out Alejandro Pino, sports commentator and director of the newspaper Meter. “The Government needs the Copa América, it sees it as the only possibility of union in the country. Right now it is a government priority, “he says. “We have always known that the leaders care about football as a business, but this week it showed that what happens in society slips them. There is much more awareness in footballers or technicians ”, he laments. The Cup has lost its luster, but for now it remains on the agenda.
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