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Football returns to South America, under protest

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

After a three-month hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic, football returned to South America Thursday in Brazil, with a Rio de Janeiro state tournament match, though some clubs and fans insist it is too soon.

Copa Libertadores holders Flamengo beat minnows Bangu 3-0 in Rio's iconic Maracana stadium, in a match with no fans played just metres (yards) from a field hospital set up to treat COVID-19 patients.

Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella, who authorized the tournament to resume, had said President Jair Bolsonaro, a fierce critic of coronavirus quarantine measures, would attend the match. But in the event the far-right leader did not make the trip.

The Rio championship is the first professional football competition to resume in South America, where the new coronavirus is still spreading rampantly.

With nearly 48,000 people killed by the virus so far, Brazil has the second-highest death toll in the world, after the United States, and the number of cases continues rising steeply.

Top Brazilian clubs, including Botafogo and Fluminense, have come out against the restart, arguing it is too soon.

Supporters of those two clubs, as well as Flamengo, Bangu and others, protested outside the stadium before the match, saying the authorities were putting lives at risk.

Players had their temperatures checked on arrival at the stadium, while reporters and photographers covering the match had to pass through a disinfection tunnel.

The match opened with a minute of silence for victims of COVID-19, including Flamengo's own massage therapist, Jorginho, who died last month.

Brazil's national championship was due to begin in May but has been indefinitely suspended.

The first national league to restart in South America will be Paraguay's on July 17.

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