If you are a soccer fan, have even a passing interest in Brazil, or are battling neoliberalism in the streets you should read this book. If you’re struggling to enjoy the World Cup knowing it is paid for on the backs of poor Brazilians, this book won’t make it any easier. But you will walk out with a greater appreciation of the depth of Brazil’s great love of soccer, and its deep societal contradictions because of the country’s aggressive adoption of neoliberal economic policies that gut the public sector for private gain.
Curiously enough, I found Dave Zirin’s latest book, “Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy” in the “Travel” section of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. Not “Sports” or “Politics” or “Sports and Politics”, a genre Zirin carves out through his many books or as the first sports editor of the Nation. Upon reflection, it makes a lot of sense – for many people, their only interaction with Brazil is as a tourist. And Zirin’s new book reads very much as travelogue as he charts his interactions with Brazil’s social movement Left. But as conscious, political people, we know that there’s always another layer. Indeed, the project of Picked Last Sports is to expose that deeper layer of sports, warts and all.
Truthfully, I wish all travel books contained Zirin’s analysis of a country’s social history, political economy, and his keen journalistic observations. Zirin details Brazil’s history from colonization until today with eye towards the stories of Brazil’s most oppressed: the poor, the Black, and the Indigenous. As I learned as a part of my own travel to Belem in 2009 to represent Grassroots Global Justice at the World Social Forum, Brazil has an inspiring history of social justice struggle and strong movements today. I wish I had this book instead of a stack of academic articles in preparation. Zirin doesn’t shy away from drawing comparisons and distinctions between the US and Brazil, likely to help US-based readers like myself understand the similarities in the two countries as nations roiled by the legacies of slave trade but also differentiate the racial ideologies and economic histories of the both.
These histories prove crucial to Zirin’s discussion of the class cleavages evident in Brazilian society. For us as readers, it fills in the political context necessary for understanding the mass uprisings by the Brazilian people against FIFA (the body governing the World Cup), the International Olympic Committee, and the Brazilian government itself. This fills deep holes in most mainstream protest reporting and without a doubt in most sports reporting. These are not just random demonstrations, but the culmination of ordinary Brazilians’ long struggle for democracy, freedom, and economic justice. And in dedicating an entire chapter on Brazil’s charismatic leader Lula, Zirin attempts to answer how a Left political party oversaw the massive land grabs and wealth transfers associated with neoliberal economic policy. The stadium building, eviction and surveillance are just aspects of that strategy.
Zirin retreads some ground if you’ve followed his writing on The Nation or at his site EdgeOfSports.com by reviewing past Olympics and World Cup boondoggles starting with the 2004 Athens. Fans of Zirin can skip these sections, but they are a key part of his searing critique of institutions like the IOC and FIFA. These institutions he argues, reflect and enforce neoliberal policies that demand austerity measures like cutting social services to finance massive building projects.
Counter to these policies is the demands by regular Brazilians for “FIFA quality” schools and hospitals. This is where Dave Zirin is at his best, reporting on the struggles of activists and regular people he meets while putting those street battles in the context of global capitalism. The opposition (hungry developers, overzealous police forces, corrupt politicians) is staggering, but people rise to the challenge nonetheless through street protest, social media, and old-fashioned community organizing. Sadly and unsurprisingly, successes are few and even then temporary. Yet the stories of struggle by regular Brazilians though, thrill and inspire in both detail and scale. From favela residents battling to keep their homes to the million that protested the Confederations Cup in 2013, Zirin reminds us that another world is indeed possible, and oh is it necessary.
“Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy” is essential reading for sports fans, organizers, and people who like books with long-ass names. Get it now at a local book store, or better yet, get it directly from Dave when he visits the Bay Area June 24-25. He’ll be speaking on the 24th 7:00 PM at the Center for Political Education in SF, and again the following night in Oakland on the 25th at 8:00 PM at SoleSpace. You’re in for a treat in Oakland, Picked Last Sports’ own Harjit Singh Gill will be hosting that talk. Get it.