SAO PAULO — The biggest country in South America has also been slowest in the region to impose restrictions on large gatherings at sporting events as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Unlike neighboring countries that have announced tough measures since the beginning of the week, Brazil has been taking a more moderate approach.
As recently as Thursday night, more than 50,000 fans watched the Copa Libertadores group stage goalless clash between southern Brazilian teams Gremio and Internacional in Porto Alegre.
Matches of traditional state tournaments were played Friday night to a few thousand fans and will go on this weekend, with only some games in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to be played behind closed doors.
In comparison, many other tournaments in soccer-crazy South America were suspended, including in Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Three countries decided to keep playing, but only behind closed doors nationwide: Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.
Brazil’s two biggest cities — Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo — contain most of the country’s 107 coronavirus cases registered so far. No deaths have been reported, but government officials say they expect the number of people affected to soar in the next couple of weeks.
If Brazil’s health ministry had not recommended empty stadia in Sao Paulo and Rio this weekend, many fans would have attended the matches scheduled.
More than 40,000 had already bought tickets for two matches in Sao Paulo on Saturday, including a derby. Another 20,000 were set for a Rio state league clash between Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo and Portuguesa.
“As there is no order from the health ministry, the decisions are made by state governments,” Brazil’s health ministry said in a statement. “The ministry makes recommendations, but each state has its contingency plans and takes its decision accordingly with their panorama.”
Other Brazilian soccer state bodies decided to play behind closed doors too, but some still insisted on allowing fans despite Friday’s recommendations by health authorities that also suggested postponements and cancellations to all organizers of sporting events in the nation.
A far different scenario has unfolded in Uruguay, where discussions about suspending sporting events were already well advanced before the tiny country announced its first coronavirus case on Friday. Hours after the information was revealed, all soccer matches were suspended, even in youth divisions, and the country’s basketball competition was set to stop on Saturday.
In Argentina, where two people already died because of the coronavirus, there are many loud voices calling for no soccer at all during the outbreak.
“This should be stopped. We can live with it, but how about people that need to work here every day? How can they do it?” asked Diego Maradona, now a coach at Gimnasia La Plata, in an interview with Fox Sports.
The calmness of some Brazilian authorities is not echoed by some players. Vasco da Gama defender Leandro Castán criticized a statement of Rio Gov. Wilson Witzel, who said playing behind closed doors this weekend will be enough of a precaution because only players will be in danger.
“The risk is ours ... thanks for the respect with the athletes,” Castán said.
South America soccer body CONMEBOL has already suspended the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana, which includes Brazilian clubs. It also had a request granted by FIFA to postpone the two opening rounds of the region’s World Cup qualifiers.
Brazil has also been more moderate in other sports, such as mixed martial arts. An edition of UFC will be held Saturday night in capital Brasilia with no fans inside.
Even though the NBA has suspended its season, Brazil’s basketball confederation believes it is enough to postpone the beginning of one of its two top leagues for a few weeks.
All matches of the country’s top volleyball tournament will go ahead behind closed doors too. Volleyball is Brazil’s second most popular sport and draws tens of thousands of fans to its best matches.