Brazilian soccer under pressure to stop as COVID-19 surges

SAO PAULO (AP) — Three Brazilian states have halted their professional soccer local leagues due to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state government of Ceará, in northeastern Brazil, on Thursday ordered the local league to stop playing, but is still allowing its clubs to take part in the Brazilian Cup. The soccer bodies in Paraná and Santa Catarina, both in the country’s south, also suspended their leagues.

Almost 260,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, whose death toll is second only to the United States. Many Brazilian governors expect the next two weeks to be the deadliest in the South American nation since the pandemic hit one year ago.

The governor in Ceará, Camilo Santana, urged Brazil’s soccer confederation to suspend Brazilian Cup matches in his state.

“I think they will suspend it because of the crisis that every state is facing. But I cannot make that decision myself, which would affect local teams playing it,” Santana told website GE. “We are waiting for a dialogue with the Brazilian soccer confederation to make a decision.”

Coaches and players have been publicly debating whether the sport needs to take a complete break.

Santos president Andres Rueda became the first leader of a top-flight club to support a second nationwide suspension of soccer, saying the pandemic is “out of control generally.”

“It hurts, but we have to stop,” Rueda told newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

Lisca, the coach of recently promoted America, is also a vocal proponent for a suspension of play.

“I am appealing to the Brazilian FA to give the Brazilian Cup a break so we can postpone these matches for a little time,” Lisca said after his team’s 1-0 win over Athletic in the local state championship on Wednesday. “I am losing friends. I know that soccer is entertainment, and it is important for people at home. But our lives are more important, we are not super heroes.”

Emmanoel Sacramento, the coach of small club River in the impoverished state of Piaui, saw his comments about the pandemic go viral on Brazilian social media on Thursday.

“Soccer is going ahead without fans in the stadiums. It is going ahead amid deaths of a pandemic that is shaking the world. And soccer goes ahead,” he said at a news conference, with tears in his eyes.

Gremio coach Renato Portaluppi disagreed with those that want soccer to stop, saying in a news conference Wednesday that tests and constant medical follow-ups make the sport very safe to play.

“Also, we are doing people a favor because when we play it is another reason for fans to stay home,” Portaluppi said.

Portaluppi is a friend of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has long downplayed the risks of the virus.

On Tuesday, Sao Paulo-based Corinthians said eight players had tested positive one day before its local league derby against rivals Palmeiras, which requested the game to be postponed. The match went ahead anyway and ended in a 2-2 draw.

José Medina, a member of Sao Paulo state’s COVID-19 contingency center, said Wednesday that the local soccer championship will continue despite hospitals statewide struggling to cope with the number of patients.

“We will follow the same European model, when many countries that enforced lockdowns kept soccer activity,” Medina said. “The population needs some sort of entertainment in such a harsh moment.”

Brazil halted all professional soccer in March 2020, with training sessions resuming in some states in May. The main national championship, which traditionally begins in May, started in August and finished in February with Flamengo defending its title.

Brazil’s soccer confederation has not commented on the renewed requests for games to be suspended. Bolsonaro is against any form of lockdown and is pushing for fans to return to games.

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