Another world (cup) is possible

July 4, 2014

Nation sportswriter and longtime contributor Dave Zirin published Brazil's Dance with the Devil just in time for the World Cup. Dan Suárez has a review.

AS WORLD Cup fever sweeps across the world, mainstream media outlets all face a similar problem: how to relate to the fierce political battle taking place on the streets of Brazil over the future of their society.

International newspapers and televisions have been flooded with idealized caricatures of Brazilian society, complete with pristine white-sand beaches, a hypersexual citizenry and a rich, happy tapestry of cultural diversity. For those who stand to profit from mega-events such as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics (to be hosted in Rio de Janeiro), promoting this idealized view of Brazil makes perfect sense--create a safe and sanitized image of Brazil, and watch foreign investment and tourism revenue skyrocket.

For the country's ruling class, these mega-events are like a big debutante ball, and it's Brazil's coming out party as a cosmopolitan society and economic powerhouse. All are seemingly invited--as long as they can pay the cover charge.

However, as public infrastructure and social welfare spending have been slashed to the bone in favor of expensive construction projects to build stadiums and tourist attractions, an undercurrent of unrest has punched a hole through the cacophony of corporate triumphalism surrounding the two games.

Protesters march in São Paulo to defend fired transit workers and the right to demonstrate during the World Cup
Protesters march in São Paulo to defend fired transit workers and the right to demonstrate during the World Cup (Ben Tavener)

What began as murmurs of discontent before 2013 has since exploded into roaring, full-scale social upheaval on the streets of Brazil. Predictably, foreign major media outlets and corporate sponsors underwriting the games have, for their parts, offered only paltry or hostile analysis of the issues surrounding the struggle.

After all, they have an interest in promoting only an idealized and sanitized depiction of the World Cup and the Olympics, and they generally ignore the human cost of the projects altogether. This is part of what makes Dave Zirin's intervention so important for any student of sports--or, more importantly, of the process of neoliberalization taking place in societies across the world.

IN BRAZIL'S Dance with the Devil, Zirin, the author of numerous books and sportswriter for the Nation magazine, sets out to challenge the conventional wisdom that hosting sporting "mega-events" such as the World Cup or Olympics is something to which countries should aspire.

The book devotes a significant amount of time to sketching an overview of Brazil's history, from a massive space before colonization, comprising numerous distinct cultures and societies; to the crown jewel of the Portuguese empire; to the burgeoning economic power standing on the precipice of "world-class" status that we see today.

As Zirin takes pains to remind readers, Brazil has an incredibly complex history and character. The book does not attempt a comprehensive review of this history, but it does provide the necessary context for the crux of Zirin's argument: the role of mega-events as a tool for neoliberal economic reorganization, and the nature of resistance against such projects.

He introduces readers to the institutions of power governing international sport: FIFA, the Swiss-headquartered governing body of international soccer, which stands to earn $4 billion in revenue during the current World Cup cycle; and the International Olympic Committee, the same governing body that banned athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith from the Olympic Village after their iconic Black Power salutes on the podium at the 1968 Summer Games.

Zirin also explains the logic of hosting these events in the first place, dispelling the myth that they are actually intended to boost economic development and quality of life for the residents of the host nations. Rather, mega-events are used as justification to seize desirable real estate, unilaterally suspend existing laws, hand out sweetheart building contracts for "FIFA-Quality Stadiums" and (permanently) expand state repression in the name of "security."

While incredible sums of money are spent building stadiums, parking lots and tourist attractions that will be obsolete after 16 days (think Athens Olympics 2004), the state cuts spending on schools, hospitals and public transportation systems that the country's citizens rely upon.

Naomi Klein's seminal Shock Doctrine explained how governments have historically undertaken such wildly unpopular programs of neoliberal reorganization only after the general population was thrust into a state of "shock" because of a national catastrophe, political upheaval, or extreme repression.

In this tradition, Zirin maps a different, "friendlier" strategy used to enact policies that would normally be resisted by a populace: Sporting mega-events as neoliberal Trojan horse. As Zirin puts it:

The Olympics, World Cup and other mega-events have, over the last 30 years, provided something that couldn't be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: the consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals. The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan horse is the games people are initially proud to host--until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed-out stomach and start taking their pound of flesh. The countries change, but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and a tax haven for corporate sponsors and private security firms, obscene public spending on new stadiums, and then brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party's over.

ZIRIN PAINTS a dark picture of the brutal efficiency and ruthlessness with which these projects have been carried out. However, he also focuses heavily on the story of resistance already beginning to mount in Brazil as he was writing.

One of the central themes of the book is the simple point that there is a severe human cost to this project. It's not merely a battle between institutions--in many cases, it's families, and communities fighting for their livelihoods, their homes and, often, their very existence.

Set against the mainstream media's condescending and dishonest portrayals of favela-dwellers as a mysterious and silent, Brazil's Dance with the Devil is a breath of fresh air. In Zirin's visits to communities like the favela Vila Autódromo, the reader learns that rather than being passive subjects who are simply happy to have the games there, many favela communities across Brazil are actually leading the fight against the neoliberal Trojan horse.

In this way, Brazil's Dance with the Devil isn't simply a book about how governments achieve unpopular policy goals. Like most of Zirin's work, it's equally focused on how people fight back.

Fans of Zirin's previous work will find much to like in this book. As compared with his earlier books, Brazil's Dance with the Devil is impressive in its depth and scope. His previous books, when they have been on a single issue, have dealt with decades-old topics about which much ink has already been spilled. His other books that have focused on contemporary topics have generally been written in vignette and short essay forms. Dance with the Devil is a deeper examination of a narrower range of topics, and it puts words to a process that's happening right now, largely under our noses.

Likewise, those who are new to the topic of sports or politics will find a great introduction here. Oftentimes, books about politics can be too dry or jargon-laden for sports fans, and books about sports are incomprehensible (or simply boring) to non-sports fans.

With Brazil's Dance with the Devil, Dave Zirin walks the tightrope perfectly. It's accessible for novices of either sports or politics, but challenging enough to pose new questions for experienced students of either area. Zirin has become so good at walking this line that familiar readers may take it for granted, but his remarkable gift really shines through in this book.

MANY OBSERVERS of the protests surrounding the 2014 World Cup have rightly asked, "Is it wrong to participate in this?" Brazil's Dance with the Devil reminds us that it's not irresponsible to love sports--but it is dangerous to ignore the severe human cost incurred by hosting mega-events and their accompanying austerity policies.

For Brazil's Dance with the Devil, the question is not whether sports are relevant in the sphere of political struggle. As Zirin demonstrates, the dictators of the 20th century and real estate developers of today have already made it increasingly clear that, yes, sports have a role to play.

For us, the question must be how those who love sports, or more broadly, love humanity, identify and mobilize against these neoliberal Trojan horses without simply denying our love of the game. Brazil's Dance with the Devil reminds us that we don't need to choose between the game(s) we love and resistance. As Zirin argues, if we don't acknowledge the incredible utility of sports as a site of class struggle, then it will be used against us.

In this way, Dave Zirin continues to shed light on historical blind spots for sports fans and politically conscious readers alike. This book, in part, is the story of how sporting mega-events are used to achieve a project of neoliberalization that would obliterate the conditions that gave rise to the joy, creativity, self-expression and communion that made Brazilian soccer so renowned in the first place.

Standardization of expression, the death of the commons, and the destruction of favela communities are sweeping through Brazil, and in some form or another, much of the world. It's up to us to educate ourselves about how this process unfolds and to help build the resistance against it, taking cues from those who have already begun the started the battle.

If you're serious about fighting for a better future, or just want a much-needed juxtaposition to mainstream media's shallow, hostile coverage of the Brazilian World Cup protests, go read this book. As Zirin reminds us, the Cup may be won soon, but we will still have a world to win after that.

Further Reading

From the archives