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.
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:
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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!]
Last week PickedLastSports.com 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.
The following is a write up of an action that occurred over the weekend by a dear friend/chosen family member of mine, Joshua Stephens. Enjoy. –Harjit
I don’t really consider myself a sports guy. While I grew up in the Mediterranean, where futbol is part of the ether, as is the case in much of the world, I attended an American high school in which athletics were largely a vector for securing impunity (or even validation) for the worst of American behaviors. Like clockwork, one inter-cultural incident bordering on diplomatic ordeal after another bore the fingerprints of, and was swept under the rug for the sake of athletes with whom I shared classrooms. What I observed in professional sports mostly inflated that narrative: a realm shot through with idiot man-child antics, rewarded with million-dollar contracts – to say nothing of a relentless and bright, flashing sign to young men of color that their value is pegged to precious few options, and even then features a stark expiration date. Virtually everything about the enterprise felt contemptible, to me.
That said, maturity can largely be measured one’s capacity for abiding complexity and contradiction. Both my work in Palestine solidarity circles and my exposure to works like Gabriel Kuhn’s brilliant Soccer Vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics sort of forced on me an acceptance (if somewhat begrudging) that the history of sport is intimately bound up with colonialism, struggles against racism and political authority, and even simple survival. When Ayed Morrar, a political prisoner from the First Intifada and one of the protagonists of the documentary Budrus, was in DC for the Silver Docs festival the summer of 2010, I took him out to breakfast at a joint around the corner from my old apartment, to watch Brazil play Portugal in the World Cup. As our coffee was poured, he leaned over and intimated that, during his time in Israeli prisons, “one month never felt like incarceration – World Cup.”
Indeed, as frequently as I hear anything else when visiting Ramallah, it’s the running joke that the most enduring point of unity among Palestinians is FC Barcelona, and my first night in town last Spring involved journalist Joseph Dana sitting me down and forcing me to watch the documentary Fire in Babylon, on the rise of the West Indies cricket team in the late 1970’s. He subsequently hauled me into his front yard at regular intervals to practice pitching/batting with him. I was, and remain, terrible at both. Nonetheless, I’ve come to appreciate how sports narratives hold a central place in the history of a host of struggles, for many of the people around me.
This past weekend, Israel’s national team faced off against Honduras here in New York City, and fittingly, local boycott champions Adalah-NY had acquired tickets, determined to throw, at least, a fleeting light on Israel’s occupation, apartheid policies, and ethnic cleansing. I enthusiastically accepted an invitation to participate, in part because it meant carrying direct action into a terrain with which I had pretty much zero familiarity, and in part because futbol has recently featured quite prominently in both Israel’s attempts at normalizing colonialism, and Palestinians’ attempts to resist it. Much as my acceptance of sport’s place within the history of various struggles, it felt like meeting someone where they’re at.
Israeli-Palestinian sociologist Tamir Sorek has written extensively on soccer in Israel, pointing out “Football is an effective vehicle for Israel to rehabilitate its image with the international community. A large sporting event is an ideal opportunity for Israel to present itself as a normal country.” The last month has seen protests in a number of international locales stemming from UEFA’s decision to hold its under-21 tournament in Israel. Desmond Tutu has joined in calls from fans and human rights voices alike for a sports boycott of Israel, modeled on similar, successful challenges to Apartheid South Africa. “The most fundamental principal of international sports is fair play,” said David Zirin, sports editor for The Nation. “The fact that Palestinian national team members have been assassinated, bombed, imprisoned without charges, and of course physically prevented at checkpoints from participating, all point to a disturbing truth: Israel doesn’t play by the rules. Their targeting of ‘a national team without a nation’ is about more than politics. It’s about killing hope and all fair-minded people in the international sports community should call it out for what it is.”
Leading the boycott calls are Palestinian national footballers Honey Thaljieh and Mahmoud Sarsak, the latter having made international headlines last year with a 92-day hunger strike to protest his nearly three years in Israeli detention without charge or trial – an ordeal that wrecked his otherwise promising career. His actions set off global protests and prompted heavy pressure from FIFA for his release, while other national footballers remain in Israeli detention, namely goalie Omar Abu Rouis and striker Muhammad Nimer.
The action itself, our hoisting of a banner reading “RED CARD ISRAELI APARTHEID” just after Israel’s first goal at the outset of the second half, was rather shockingly uneventful – situated as we were in a section with a considerable number of Israel supporters. We anticipated everything as serious as physical confrontation, not least because a stunning number of attendees showed up in full-on fatigues, sporting Israeli Defense Force tshirts – one older fellow rocking an IDF yarmulke, and shouting “IDF!!!” as though he’d mistaken the match-up for a military rally. The nationalism that predictably accompanies sporting events pitting one country against another merged with a romance for military aesthetics evocative of straight-up fascist themes.
This was made all the more creepy when Benjamin Netanyahu appeared sitting at a desk on the video display during halftime, repeatedly beseeching attendees to “celebrate Israel” on this or that grounds – a demonstration of the obvious insecurity the event was staged to paper-over. The government of Honduras, whatever its national faults, didn’t seem similarly compelled. On another massive screen, just above the concessions adjacent to our seats, a video timeline of Israeli history played, beginning well before 1948. No mention of Palestinians. No mention of expulsions or massacres. No mention of refugees. No mention of occupation, illegal settlements, resource theft, or the construction of the Apartheid Wall.
In the end, we left the stadium – as we’d likely been doomed to – not altogether clear that we’d accomplished anything terribly measurable. Adrenaline can skew one’s metrics that way. Anything eight of us did was bound to feel underwhelming, I’m sure. What we did accomplish was a certain refusal, one my sport-loving radical friends emphasize over and over, likely feeling unheard by the rest of us: A refusal to be absent; a refusal to cede any given terrain to the intolerable, however outnumbered, and however overwhelming and futile it feels.
Appropriately, this is often the texture of Palestinian resistance, as well, recalling my own encounters with those building houses doomed to demolition or planting almond groves doomed to be razed, in the shadow of Israeli settlements immunized and emboldened by massive diplomatic and military power. How we refuse to be absent matters, whatever our inhibitions, cherished comforts, or expectations. I’m humbled to have learned something of this from sporting radical friends – those who refuse all refuge to tyranny, and hold out potential for the liberatory reclamation of all aspects of life.
Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anticapitalist, international solidarity, and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades. He currently divides his time between Brooklyn, NY and various parts of the Mediterranean. Follow Joshua on twitter
For more information on the campaign to send Israel off the pitch, please click here.
First things first, this story coming from the MLS (Major League Soccer, since only like 200 people follow it, no offense Eric) about the Portland Timbers franchise hosting a ‘make a wish’ game for a fan is beautiful. The ‘4 major sports’ in the US could take a page out of the MLS book on this one, warning, it’ll get you misty-eyed. #getwellatticus
To continue with the idea that every post should have a Jason Collins mention, I’ll be quick and mention that he was on the BS report podcast with Bill Simmons, and it was fantastic. Totally check it out. Shocker of the podcast is that (it appears) notable Bay Area face Tim Hardaway has come around on LGTBQ rights. Great podcast. Kick it here.
NHL Playoffs started today. Since most of us (myself and Timmy included) don’t follow hockey until at least the 1st round of the playoffs, maybe even the second; a quick guide to jumping on a solid bandwagon is here. Start sending your hatemail, I’m a longtime Canucks fan and I don’t care.
All I have to say about Yu Darvish is ‘wow.’ Great .gif showing just that those 5 pitches come off the hand; so precise, it’s perfection. Enjoy, watch on repeat as I do, soaking it in.
Now, on to the person of the hour. Chandler Parsons. For those who know me, my favorite basketball players are those 6’4″ ish, white shooting forwards with poor/average defense. I appreciate pure shot, despite it’s downside. File myself under the general umbrella of the Mark Price/Steve Kerr fan. Chandler Parsons is not quite that, but in today’s NBA, he’s so much of that and more.
This is especially pertinent because tonight, The Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to pull this thing to 3-2 (OKC with the lead). Parsons has come up big alongside James Harden, with a nearly 45% fg% tonight; through 27 points and was 3/6 from ‘beyond the arc’ as they say. Big things coming from Parsons.
We love you too Chandler.