SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's main national soccer championship begins on Saturday after a three-month delay on the same day the South American nation is expected to reach the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.
Three matches will open the country's Serie A, in a big victory for President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the risks of the disease and has insisted life and sport should return to normal.
Brazil has counted a daily average of 1,000 fatalities by the virus for more than two months, and almost 3 million people are infected. But executives of the country's soccer body felt confident enough to kick off the national championship, a step that neighboring Argentina, where about 4,200 have died of the disease, has yet to take.
Club executives and players have been quiet about the start-up, but others haven't. One of the most vocal critics is former footballer and TV Globo commentator Walter Casagrande.
“We can't forget what is happening in this country. We will reach 100,000 deaths, a scary number, and soccer is on," Casagrande, a former national team, Porto and Torino striker, said Wednesday during the first leg of the Sao Paulo state league final between Corinthians and Palmeiras. “I feel embarrassed about this situation, but it is my job. I am here to talk about soccer.”
State leagues that open the Brazilian season started coming back in June after open pressure from Brazilian and South American champion Flamengo. Those tournaments needed to be finished so the national competition could kick off.
Jorge Pagura, the head of the medical commission of Brazil's soccer confederation, said the anti-COVID-19 protocol for the national championship is “at the maximum level of safety.” The measures include tests three days before matches for all 23 members of each team, both coaches and the four referees.
The national championship will see teams flying around on a tight schedule in a country as big as the continental United States. Players will be exposed to the risk of disease in multiple airports, airplanes and hotels, and travel to places where the pandemic could be in a worse stage than in their hometowns.
The Brazilian protocols say no more than 300 people will attend matches, including players, club staffers, executives and the media. Only six ball boys will be allowed, and all need to wash their hands and the soccer balls with alcohol whenever possible.
President Bolsonaro, who is a dedicated soccer fan, mentioned the opening of the Brazilian championship in a live broadcast Thursday night.
“We regret every death, we will reach 100,000, but let's move on with our lives and get away from this problem,” he said.
The Brazilian championship is scheduled to finish in February. Flamengo is the favorite to retain its title.
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