(Reuters) – This year’s Copa America has been postponed until 2021 due to fears over the spread of the coronavirus, the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) said on Tuesday.

The 12-team tournament, originally scheduled for June 12-July 12 in Colombia and Argentina, follows the 2020 European Championship in being pushed back a year with global sport being brought to a virtual standstill by the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is an extraordinary measure for an unexpected situation and responds to the fundamental need to avoid the exponential evolution of the virus,” said CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez.

Dominguez said the rescheduled tournament would be played between June 11 and July 11, 2021.

“It wasn’t easy to take this decision but we must safeguard at all times the health of our players and all those who form part of the big South American football family,” he added.

“Have no doubts that the oldest international tournament in the world will be back stronger than ever in 2021.”

The Copa America is one of the biggest draws on the football calendar, with players such as Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, and James Rodriguez expected to take part.

The Euro 2020 finals, due to take place over the same dates across 12 countries in Europe, was also postponed for a year.

This year’s Copa was due to be held in two countries for the first time in its 104-year history, with a northern group set for Colombia and a southern group due to be played in Argentina.

In addition to the 10 South American nations, Australia and Qatar were also invited.

The northern group comprised Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Qatar. The southern group featured Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Australia.

The tournament was scheduled to kick off in Buenos Aires on June 12, with the final in Barranquilla, Colombia on July 12.

The 2020 edition was set to be the fourth in six years but the haphazard organisation that saw it played so frequently was about to end as CONMEBOL try to bring it into line with the European Championship.

This year’s tournament was supposed to be the last until 2024 as it becomes a regular quadrennial event.

Brazil won the trophy for the ninth time in 2019.

Dominguez later said CONMEBOL could use the Copa dates to begin the South American World Cup qualifiers due to start next week but cancelled because of the virus scare.

He also told ESPN Argentina he hoped the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of UEFA’s Champions League, can restart on May 6.

CONMEBOL suspended the Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana last week.

(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ken Ferris)

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