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Copa America going ahead this month in Colombia

© Reuters Limited 2001

By Alistair Scrutton

BUENOS AIRES, July 5 (Reuters) - The Copa America will take place in Colombia this month as originally planned, reversing a decision to postpone the tournament due to violence in the Andean country, the organisers said on Thursday. "The (original) date is confirmed and the headquarters are ratified," Nicolas Leoz, president of the South American Football Confederation (CSF), told reporters at a news conference in Buenos Aires. However, Argentina, widely regarded as the strongest team in the tournament, said they would not take part.

The CSF decision was the latest twist in a rollercoaster ride for the Copa America. In only a month, the CSF twice confirmed the Copa America would be held in Colombia. It then said the tournament would be moved to another venue before it surprisingly reinstated Colombia, but with a postponement until 2002. Now, it appears to have gone back to square one by moving the start date back to July 11 this year, although it was unclear how Colombia would cope with organising the competition at such short notice. While the reasons for the latest decision were unclear, CSF sources and local media said that sponsors may have pressurised for the event to be held this month.

"It's a painful situation to recognise but he who puts up the cash, calls the shots," Colombia's Interior Minister Armando Estrada said. Last Saturday, the CSF suspended the event until 2002 after Colombian Football Federation (FCF) vice-president Hernan Mejia Campuzano was kidnapped on a rural highway in what appeared to be the last straw after a spate of bombings in major cities during the previous six weeks alarmed officials.

Colombia's main television channels, which had invested large amounts of money preparing for the tournament and had launched a "Save the Copa" campaign, interrupted normal programming with news flashes announcing the latest decision. "We are going to defeat violence and the violent minority. Let's root for peace," said President Andres Pastrana, who made a televised address to the nation and held up a gold and blue Colombian national team jersey. The decision is a boost for Pastrana, who had made staging what he called the "Cup of Peace" a political priority.

For many Colombians, staging the Copa America had become an issue of national pride, a chance to show that their nation was capable of producing more than headlines about bomb blasts, guerrilla kidnappings and cocaine. "People need entertainment and it will show that it's only a minority who've got us in the state we're in. We're going to be happy to host the Copa," said actress Diana Angel, 25.

But Colombia's chronic violence - endemic in a country locked in a 37-year, drug-fuelled war which has claimed 40,000 civilian lives in the past decade - seemed to sabotage Copa preparations earlier this year. A series of apparently unrelated bomb attacks in major cities killed 13 people and injured 250. The final straw came in late June when FARC rebels kidnapped Mejia even though they released him just a few days later.

Ironically, while politicians and officials have argued endlessly over where and when to hold the event, the footballers themselves have remained apathetic. The Copa America now plays second fiddle to South America's World Cup qualifying tournament, in which the 10 nations play each other twice over an 18-month period. Before the postponement, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and even Colombia themselves had announced that they would send second-string teams to the Copa and rest their top players for World Cup qualifiers. Peru coach Julio Cesar Uribe announced that he would use the tournament to try out his 19-year-old son, who is a substitute with a struggling club in Uruguay and would not normally be considered for a place in the national team.

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