The World Cup and “Brazil’s Dance With the Devil”

Brasil 10

Image courtesy Hassam via Facebook

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.

Brazil Soccer Confed Cup Protests

Image courtesy Flickr user Sebástian Freire

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.

image courtesy Flickr user Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape

Image courtesy Flickr user Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape

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 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.

Brazil's Dance With the Devil via Haymarket Books

via Haymarket Books

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.


Soccer for fun, for community, for revolution

This weekend, radical footballers gather in Oakland for Copa Communidad VII 2014. Guest writer Vivian Huang admits that she is not a sports fan, but loves to simply play and in this piece, reflects on the revolutionary possibility of soccer:

Left Wing Futbol Club

Image credit May-li Khoe:

It’s fitting that I would be blogging on this site, as I was often picked almost-last in elementary school PE. This practice – the process where the team captains take turns picking teammates – created an understanding early on about who was athletic and therefore, popular and on top of the social hierarchy. As a kid, I didn’t like team sports – they all seemed to involve a lot of putting down your opponents, stressful fighting among teammates, and people yelling at me when I made a mistake. I remember being part of a lot of soccer games in elementary school PE, and when I say “being part of” I mean hanging out in the back area near the goal, talking to the other outcasts, and making grass flower bracelets, all the while wishing that I could be somewhere else, reading a good book.

Well, years later, I did go and read a good book, one that transformed the way I thought about soccer. Eduardo Galeano’s “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” is an homage to the beauty, grit, and inspiration of the play of soccer. The beginning dedication reads,

“The pages that follow are dedicated to the children who, once upon a time, years ago, crossed my path on the Calella de la Costa. They had been playing soccer and were singing: We lost, we won, either way we had fun.”

Left Wing Futbol Club

Image credit May-li Khoe:

The ending chapter offers up this wisdom, “A reporter once asked the German theologian Dorothee Solee: ‘How would you explain to a child what happiness is?’ ‘I wouldn’t explain it,’ she answered. ‘I’d toss him a ball and let him play.’

I’ve been fortunate to discover belatedly the joy that comes from playing with a ball as I kick it with Left Wing Futbol Club, a group of anti-imperialists who play with the motto “If you want to change the world, you have to change the way you play.”

It is a space where everybody plays according to their ability, nobody keeps score, and the love of the game and your fellow community members is the only thing that matters. I’m there to experience that joy from running with the wind, playing with the ball, laughing at the ridiculously bad (and good) moves, and momentarily forgetting the heartbreaks of the world.

Left Wing Futbol Club

Image credit May-li Khoe:

I was inspired by the protests in Brazil, as millions turned out to protest the injustice of capitalism having turned kicking a ball into a multi-billion dollar sports industry while so many are without basic education and social services. Galeano writes,

“Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.”

If transforming our system has to start from transformation within, then playing soccer for fun, for community, and for joy can be a revolutionary act in of itself. Soccer should serve the people. Let’s play!

“Next Goal Wins” Movie Review

Image of American Samoa players

Defender Jaiyah Saelua prepares for the crunch tie against Tonga at the World Cup qualifiers in Apia, Samoa.

Growing up with a very crude understanding of imperialism, colonialism, and world history I freakin’ loved the World Cup for the chance to witness non-Western European country win it all and bring pride and dignity back to their homeland. Next Goal Wins is, on the surface, about this. American Samoan men (with one exception of a third gendered person on the team) trying to gain the respect and dignity for themselves and their country. The documentary follows their journey to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, still in the shadow of their infamous 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001.

Jaiyah Saelua leading a traditional dance.

Jaiyah Saelua leading a traditional dance.

The American Samoa soccer team is the underest of underdogs. They are literally last place in the World FIFA rankings. A win means going from 180th to 170th in the rankings. Despite the low stakes, this is place where passion, sincerity, and heart thrives. The players are amateurs: youth, students, and working class folks volunteering for the chance to represent their people, culture, and country on the international stage. Rarely in any other situation is the motivation to play as pure.

The documentary is more than the games, though. There are glimpses of deeper issues in American Samoa: how American Samoa deals with being an American territory while nearby Samoa is an independent nation, Samoan culture rejecting (Western) gender binaries through its concept of Fa’afafine, and how the majority of American Samoan youth enlist in the United States military because there are no jobs in their country.

These small hints give insight into how soccer is used as a channel for the players to understand their role in the grand scheme of things. This is how they try to understand how they can serve their community as American Samoan in a diaspora hugely influenced by United States militarism. Even if American Samoa did win the World Cup, it wouldn’t fix everything, but it would feel damn good.

P.S. There’s definitely some of the white guy finding himself in this movie, but to me it was minimal and ignorable (of course would’ve been better if was removed entirely).

Jonathan Yee is a techie and activist based in SF.

[ed – Next Goal Wins is showing for just one more day at the Roxie in SF. Catch it while you can!]

UPDATED: Clippers Fans Opposing Racism and Sexism

LA Clippers

Flickr user Mike Licht (

UPDATE 4/29: Donald T. Sterling banned for life from games, practices and from Clipper facilities, fined $2.5 million and the NBA will attempt to force a sale of the team. NBA commissioner Adam Silver though dodged questions about Sterling’s past racist practices, ESPN is reporting “widespread support” for Silver’s decision. A couple of thoughts:

  • Silver did the right thing in responding to this latest incident. He went for the maximum fine and ban and initiating steps to force a sale. It’s unlikely that he’d move on that without a reasonable expectation of success in convincing the other owners. That’s a good thing.
  • Donald T. Sterling is going to make out like a bandit if the sale happens. Forbes valued the Clippers at $575M, and will likely go for higher than that in an open market.
  • This is a recognition, well known until David Stern gave the Clippers Chris Paul, that the franchise under Sterling is toxic and is the NBA’s dead end. There was some amnesia after the Gift of Paul, but this episode is just a reminder of Sterling’s awful history as an owner, and his consistently racist and paternalistic attitudes towards Clippers players. It’s no surprise he’s a “Slumlord Billionaire”. Players aren’t in LA to play for Sterling, they are there for the Clippers players and coaches. The recent success of the Clippers can be attributed to Sterling getting the heck out of the way and laying low.
  • We’re here at this point 1) because Sterling’s comments were so bad that the other NBA owners couldn’t be caught defending Sterling, even if it were in their long-term interests to limit the commissioner’s powers and 2) NBA players past and present demonstrated, took to social media and the media to express their disgust and really considered major disruption to the NBA’s business as usual though boycotts. If the NBA failed to act in a way that the players would support, we could have seen players vote with their feet in free agency, top coaches refusing to sign the the Clippers, and more sponsors withdrawing from the Clippers. And that, the NBA cannot have for newly nationally popular franchise.
  • You should really be following Dave Zirin (@edgeofsports), his coverage and blunt reality checks on the shortcomings of this process is a wakeup call.
  • Oh and by the way, the settlement in Sterling’s housing discrimination suit was just $2.73M paid out by his Sterling’s insurance companies. Gives you a sense of where racial justice is at in the US when the difference between being a racist and acting racist is just $230k or 9.2%.

We here at is all about experimentation. In the spirit of that, instead of writing about what an awful owner Donald T. Sterling we instead hosted a webchat on the same topic. With special guest and die-hard Clippers fan John de Leon we start with a recap of the controversy, delve deeper in to Sterling’s past racism/sexism/classism/being a slumlord, and response of the players, fans, and the league. Check it out:

Next Goal Wins

Next Goal Wins movie poster

Next Goal Wins movie poster

Last week was fortunate to interview Jaiyah Saelua and Nicky Salapu, both players of the American Samoa national soccer team, highlighted in the recently released documentary Next Goal Wins. The film documents their struggles as the worst team in the world, juggling family and work as amateur players, but also the brilliant successes: their first goal and win in a match, and in the case of Jaiyah, being the first transgender person to play in a World Cup qualifer. Check out our interview at Apex Express. For folks in the Bay Area, the film is playing at the Roxie in San Francisco, right now.

Sports Movie Review, Ballplayer:Pelotero

One thing one does when on the road, or in hospital emergency rooms is watch Netflix. Part of it is to get your mind off things, part of it is just the long waits, the boredom. Suffice to say, I’ve had my share of those recently and was able to watch some great sports related documentaries on my time. In this series, I’ll cover 3 of them; “Ballplayer:Pelotero,” “Saulte,” and “Knuckleball”. There will be spoilers. My apologies. Ballplayer:Pelotero I figure with Spring Training in high gear, it’s a good time to talk baseball documentaries. We can have a lengthy discussion on the Ken Burns masterpiece later, for now, let’s discuss the peloteros. This film captures life in and around the baseball academies in the Domincan Republic. Another term one could use, to be fair, is baseball factory. The documentary follows 2 young men (Miguel Sano, a top Twins prospect, and Jean Carlos Batista, an who are trying to get signed. Major League Baseball’s draft has not included international players (that’s changing) and that’s allowed teams to exploit cheap non-US labor. As an example of this, we need to look no further than Pedro Martinez, one of the greatest pitchers in my lifetime, signed with the Dodgers in 1988 for $6,500. International free agency doesn’t hurt everyone (ask any of the Cuban exiles who are cashing in), but for the younger players without an established record, these academies are the way in. I doubt MLB loved it, as it’s quite critical of the league position and hands-off approach. In addition to being a great story (watching these two youths) we get to see what baseball means in its totality. Often, we don’t want to know “how the sausage is made” (especially gross to this vegan.) But what that asks us to do is look the other way when we should be looking in and around, becoming aware of what all is involved in our love of something. Part of handling complexity for me, is being able to love baseball, and support changes to the league and drafting/signing possibilities. We can’t demand justice if we don’t know what is unjust. This film is a must watch for every baseball fan, and has to be incorporated into our thoughts when we discuss the draft, free agency, and the idea of exploitation in modern sports.

Why You Should be Watching “The Finish Line”

Grantland, an ESPN subsidiary, has been working on a piece with Steve Nash called “The Finish Line” about this moment in Nash’s career where injuries are mounting, and fans are, more and more often, seeing him as simply a salary cap figure rather than a basketball player (a hall of famer and a human being).

It’s something Timmy and I have discussed. We’re concerned that fantasy sports and analytics (both things I love, adore, believe in, support wholeheartedly) convert us to the side of the owner (take notice the next time you say a player is being overpaid for their skillset, or should be cut to save cap money, or that the someone is ‘dead money’). I’m jotting notes to write more about this in the near future, but the mode of thinking about sports at this moment is, unfortunately, a tacit approval/viewing through the lens of the owning class and it’s interests against the workers (players).

Cue “The Finish Line.” It brings us back to the humanity of Nash. We forgot somehow, he loves basketball. No, again, he *LOVES* basketball. He loves it more than you or I love fantasy basketball. He lives for it, and he’s pushing his bodies limits farther than you and I could imagine in rehab to try to get back on the floor, and he’ll be damned to retire so that the Lakers can restructure their cap and pay someone else. It means more to him than your phone calls to talk radio saying that he’s selfish, or greedy.

And I can appreciate that. I had fallen myself into the idea that Nash should retire, clear some cap space, help the Lakers make a move in the offseason. Which was difficult for me. I love Steve Nash, I love his game, I used to go to see him play whenever the Suns were in town, and I had come to a place where I felt “maybe, for his sake, he should retire.”

Post this series, I’ve taken a sharp turn. I want to see Nash, on the court one more time. I encourage everyone to read the initial piece/primer, and then just watch the well made doc-videos. They are short, but get the point across.

Sometimes, it’s more than a game.