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Twelve people from the Venezuelan national football team, including players and staff, have tested positive for Covid-19, officials said Saturday, a day before they play the opening match of the Copa America against hosts Brazil.

In the latest in a cascade of bad news for the troubled South American championships, the health department in Brasilia, which is slated to host Sunday’s kickoff match, said it had been informed of the positive test results by tournament organizers Friday night, shortly after the Venezuelan team arrived.

“The health department was notified by CONMEBOL (the South American football confederation) that 12 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation, including players and coaching staff, tested positive for Covid-19,” the health department said in a statement sent to AFP.

“All are asymptomatic and isolated in individual hotel rooms. They are being monitored by CONMEBOL’s team and health department officials.”

CONMEBOL said Friday it would allow teams unlimited substitutions for players who are ruled out because of positive Covid-19 results or contact with infected people, meaning the cases were unlikely to force the cancellation of any matches.

But the infections added to the headaches of organizers already facing sponsor pullouts and a flurry of criticism over the decision to press ahead with the tournament despite the pandemic.

– Variant fears –

The health department did not say how many players had tested positive.

Earlier, its top official, Health Secretary Osnei Okumoto, told CNN Brasil that five Venezuelan players and five staff were infected.

He said the health department was tracing everyone they had contact with and would carry out genetic testing on their samples to determine which strain of the coronavirus they were carrying.

Already hit hard by a local variant of the virus, the “Gamma” strain, Brazil has been nervously eyeing the “Delta” strain that emerged in India.

It has reported several imported cases, but there is no confirmation of local transmission so far.

Venezuela are slated to face Brazil Sunday in Brasilia’s Mane Garrincha stadium to open the Copa America, which was already delayed by 12 months because of the pandemic.

The tournament nearly had to be called off again when original co-hosts Argentina and Colombia fell through over a surge of Covid-19 in the former and violent anti-government protests in the latter.

It was controversially saved at the last minute when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro gave his blessing for Brazil to host.

Officials have pressed ahead despite warnings from epidemiologists the event could exacerbate a Covid-19 outbreak that has already claimed nearly 485,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.

Matches will be held in empty stadiums, including the July 10 final in Rio de Janeiro.

– Too late to vaccinate –

Organizers are facing backlash for pushing ahead with the tournament, however.

Several Copa America sponsors — Mastercard, beer giant Ambev and alcoholic beverage company Diageo — said this week they were pulling their branding from the tournament.

There are plans for a protest in Brasilia on opening day.

And many players and coaches have criticized the event, including Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Argentina’s Sergio “Kun” Aguero and the entire Brazilian national team.

Two opposition parties and a labor union filed lawsuits to block the tournament on health grounds, but Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday to allow it — though it ordered the government to submit an extensive health protocol.

The 10 teams will undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing every 48 hours. Their movements will be restricted, and they will travel to matches in the four host cities on chartered flights.

However, Brazil’s health ministry backed down from plans to require all players, coaches and staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19, saying there was not enough time.