BOGOTA (Reuters) -Protest-hit Colombia will ask the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) to postpone the Copa America tournament until spectators can be present at stadiums, sports minister Ernesto Lucena said on Thursday.
The tournament, due to kick off in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires on June 13, is set to be held in two countries for the first time in its 105-year history.
Fifteen games are slated for Colombia - including the final in Barranquilla on July 10 - and 13 games are scheduled for Argentina.
Argentina earlier this week offered to host the whole tournament amid weeks of anti-government protests in Colombia which have killed at least 15 people.
Tear gas fired outside some stadiums during recent matches led to discomfort for players and condemnation from coaches and officials. CONMEBOL already transferred some games out of Colombia to Paraguay and Ecuador.
The protests that began in late April, originally against a now canceled tax plan, have led to food and gasoline shortages and stymied exports, the government said. Protest demands have expanded to include calls for a basic income, an end to police violence and opportunities for young people.
Although Colombian president Ivan Duque ordered security forces to remove blockades set up by protesters, there are still an estimated 43 roads blocked in 17 of Colombia’s 32 provinces.
Unions have called for more major protests on May 26 and 28.
“The Colombian government will formally request to the South American Football Confederation, via the Colombia Football Federation, the postponement of the Copa America,” Lucena said in a statement. “We think the most important thing about an event of this magnitude is public attendance.”
“At this moment the impossibility of having public will mean the Copa is not the event we all dream of it being.”
The event should be postponed until stadiums can fill to at least 50% capacity, Lucena said, adding that may be possible by the year’s end.
The final decision rests with CONMEBOL, who are expected to make an announcement later on Thursday.
This year’s Copa America was originally scheduled for 2020 but was held over because of the spread of COVID-19.
South America has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 444,000 people dying in Brazil, and new surges causing consternation in Argentina and Uruguay, amongst other places.