RIO DE JANEIRO: Football fans at the fancy Piraquê club in Rio de Janeiro can’t wait to once again gather at the bar beside a swimming pool to watch great players fight for a major tournament trophy in crowded stadiums while they calmly sip on caipirinhas.
Though Copa America is taking place in their city, they are actually looking forward to Italy vs. Spain playing on Tuesday to reach the final of the European Championship.
Brazil and Peru were also meeting in a semifinal on Monday but Brazilian fans have been far more disinterested in the tournament than usual. That didn't change much after the Copa America hosts advanced to Saturday's decider after a 1-0 win over Peru.
The pandemic, the last-minute hosting, some unimpressive matches, and the fact that the most popular broadcaster is not showing the Copa America have cut down the fans' interest.
“The Copa America is never much fun, but this time even less,” Thomas Castro said as he planned to meet friends for Tuesday's Euro 2020 clash. “My mom would never know the Copa is on if I didn’t tell. I watch Brazil at home, but there’s no atmosphere like you see in Europe with fans and all.”
No tourists arriving in Rio would notice there’s a major soccer tournament taking place in the city. There are no banners, no ads, and no anticipation evident, unlike two years ago when Brazil also hosted after years of planning and buildup.
Many cariocas, as locals are known, are not strictly following social distancing recommendations, but that doesn’t mean they are willing to spend time out of their homes watching the Copa.
On the streets around Nilton Santos Stadium, one could hardly tell when it has hosted seven Copa matches. The few street carts selling food attract only journalists, staffers, and some locals who are playing around by the gates of the empty stadium.
“I’ve made a few bucks, which always happens during the pandemic,” said Celso David, running a hamburger stall outside the stadium. “This it isn’t much different from other events we’ve done recently. When Brazil hosted the Copa in 2019 it was a little better, more people coming from other countries and Brazilian tourists.”
Brazil agreed to be an emergency host after Argentina and Colombia were pulled as organizers. No fans are allowed in stadia despite the insistence of President Jair Bolsonaro, a critic of lockdown measures. It will be the same at Saturday's final at Maracana Stadium.
Many restrictions on movement are still in place in Rio and in the three other host cities, Brasilia, Goiania and Cuiabá. But the biggest hurdle for the Copa America in Brazil has been the fans. Unable to go to games, they haven't been much interested in watching them on TV, either.
“Is it still on?” housewife Maria Cristina Teli asked. “I watch the Brazilian championship sometimes, but this Copa America ... I didn’t see any matches this time. Is Brazil playing Argentina sometime?”
Brazil's dominant TV Globo is broadcasting some Euro 2020 matches instead of the Copa America, which is shown on the country's third most popular open channel, SBT, and on ESPN Brasil on cable. SBT soccer ratings are usually one third of Globo's, which has also proven consistent this time.
Bars in Rio’s tourist areas are showing Copa America matches, and have been allowed by health authorities since May to stay open late with tables two meters apart.
But, so far, no games have created enough interest to draw large gatherings. The bars that do look overcrowded in Rio, especially in the posh Leblon neighborhood, don’t have TVs and are filled with flirting, anxious youngsters.
Organizers hope some of that gloom will change if the final features Neymar's Brazil against Lionel Messi's Argentina. But even that could be a struggle.
“Yes, if we play Argentina I will definitely see,” housewife Teli said. “Which channel will it be on?”