Razil's Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy

Dave Zirin

Haymarket Press

Earlier this month protests erupted in 10 cities in Brazil, which is set to host matches for soccer's biggest tournament, the World Cup, June 12 to July 13. Brazilians have demonstrated against the Cup since last summer, when more than two million people took to the streets in cities around the country during the Confederations Cup, a World Cup run-up tournament that was also held in Brazil. Brazil won that title, and is a favorite going into the upcoming Cup. How could one of the most soccer-loving countries in the world protest the sports' biggest stage, especially when its national team is a contender to win a record sixth championship?

That's the question Dave Zirin explores in his new book, Brazil's Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy (Haymarket Press). Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation, has built a career exploring the intersection of politics and sports even though professional leagues try to keep their games free of politics. Zirin traveled to Brazil to speak to people living in the favelas, the communities created by the dispossessed outside of Brazil's major cities. They have been displaced by the construction of new stadiums and athletic facilities for the Cup and the 2016 Olympic games, which will also be held in Brazil. Zirin documents how the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer's international governing body, collaborates with governments to remake their countries for private enterprise. And he roots this discussion in Brazil's history, both with the sport and the country's political economy. Zirin comes to Red Emma's May 29 to talk about his book, and City Paper caught up with him by phone to ask about how sports mega events have become, as he's written about new stadium construction in American cities and the Super Bowl, a "neoliberal Trojan Horse that brings a tremendous amount of capital that flows up and barely trickles down."

City Paper: Before we get to Brazil, I wanted to touch on two things that relate to this discussion about how sports functions in the increasingly global marketplace. The first is the situation with the Donald Sterling and the LA Clippers. While NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's lifetime ban from the league and levying of the maximum fine were, I think, widely seen as swift and appropriate responses, I can't help but feel that doing the right thing in this case is merely common sense PR. Is it too cynical to feel that what we're seeing is a multibillion-dollar corporation protecting its global brand?

David Zirin: Of course it is. This is the No. 1 legal argument that the NBA is going to be making for removing Donald Sterling from ownership. He has harmed their product. He is no different than somebody who opens a Pizza Hut franchise and serves up a cigarette-butt pizza with extra cheese. And in a global marketplace, open, naked racism in a sport that is so overly dependent on African-American talent could not be tolerated.

With this [incident], though, we get this incredible view into the priorities and the morality of the wealthy. Donald Sterling harms the brand and all of a sudden everybody is up [in] arms about racism, yet Donald Sterling's racism for decades, not the least of which are his actions as a slumlord, were ignored by the NBA. That tells us something. And frankly, it also tells us something that the voice of the players in this has been [former NBA player] Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, who is anti-union and, like Donald Sterling, he has owned slums and profited from slums and been fined for his ownership of slums, and he has a record as a sexual harasser. That never seemed to upset the NBA at all. So it speaks to the bizarre place where we are in U.S. history, which is, as [author, litigator, and activist] Michelle Alexander puts it, an era of the new Jim Crow in an age of color-blindness. You can profit off of racism, you can sit at the top of the pyramid that benefits from institutionalized racism, and yet heaven forbid that you're caught on tape making a racist comment. I think this a moment that people in the future will look back on and see us, frankly, at a crossroads. And I'm not sure which direction we're going to take, but it does seem likes there's a profound contradiction between the practices of this country and what is shocking for people to say out loud.

CP: The second thing I wanted to ask about is Sochi and Russia after the Olympic games. In the run-up to the Olympics, another massive global brand, I recall reading so many stories about all the things that could possibly go wrong. But I kind of get the impression that by and large the 2014 Winter Olympics were quite successful in moving billions of dollars in public funds into private hands via construction, security, and infrastructure contracting. Is there anything we can take away from Sochi to think about what's going on in Brazil right now?

DZ: I think the No. 1 lesson from Sochi is the ways in which world leaders, particularly in autocratic governments, use these mega-events as a way to remake whole sections of their countries. It's not just to stage the games. This is about Putin attempting to retake the Caucasus once and for all, to the point where he'll do something as illogical as stage a winter games in a subtropical city. And the fact that the [International Olympic Committee] is his partner in crime in that process is stunning. I talk about Sochi in the Brazil book because it shows that this pattern exists, that what's happening in Brazil is in some respects very specific to Brazil, but in other respects the debt, the displacement, and the quote-end-quote "defense spending" are features of mega events wherever they are in the world.

CP: What first drew your interest in wanting to pay attention to what was happening on the ground in Brazil as the country prepared for two global sporting events? When you wrote about the 2013 Confederations Cup protests I think you were already well into your reporting for the book.

DZ: I almost bowed out on it [before the protests] because my original reason for wanting to do the book was because I was fascinated by the thought of Brazil facing that one-two punch of the World Cup and the Olympics. And when I went down there, frankly, I was incredibly ignorant to the enormity of Brazil as a country, as an economy, as a culture, and I realized I could read for the next 10 years and I wouldn't have enough time to encapsulate what the World Cup and the Olympics could mean for it.

So I felt like it was a wash and that was a very dark moment. But the protests changed it, because all of a sudden I had this narrative: Why would people protest soccer in Brazil? And that's how I tried to write the book. If you want to understand why these protests are taking place, you need to understand Brazil's history, the historical connection between soccer and Brazil, what's happening in the favelas right now, what the construction projects look like on the ground, and you need to hear from the voices of actual Brazilians.

CP: When you first went down to start reporting, is that what you did-immediately head into the favelas to talk to the people who live there?

DZ: Absolutely. I talked to people in the favelas and I talked to people among the social movements and established left in Brazil. And almost to a person, the folks among the left in Brazil said they did not believe that there would be any protests in advance of the World Cup. People were extremely pessimistic.

In the favelas, though, I met a lot of very heroic organizers who are basically trying to keep their homes from being torn down. They weren't raising these very expansive, specific demands against FIFA and the World Cup. It was more, "Keep your hands off our homes." I left [the country] struck by the pessimism among a lot of the folks on the Brazilian left and struck by the heroism of a lot of the folks in the favelas.

CP: What brought people out into the streets?

DZ: We know what it was concretely. It was the bus fare movement. Sometimes these very small things can lead to much broader social explosions. So it was the minor hike in the bus fare. The buses used to be free, and [the hike] just crystallized so much for people.

That being said, one of the things that one of the folks said to me after the protests, and I just thought it was a very astute analysis, is that you have to account for Brazil's vastness. It's bigger than the continental United States and has 200 million people. And this person said to me, "The very size of Brazil has often acted as a brake on any sort of national demonstration or national demands" - the same way it's very difficult to imagine demands in the United States that would link up, say, Alabama and New York City. Not impossible, but very difficult. But the thing about the World Cup, unlike the Olympics, it's a national event. It's not just in one city. So you've got these stadiums being built or rebuilt in cities across the country and in areas that aren't even that soccer crazy. There are parts of Brazil where people are not that into soccer, and it shocks people to hear that, but it's true.

So the fact that the World Cup was national acted as a spark for a lot of anger, particularly around issues of health care and education. There's so much money being spent on the World Cup with so many promises. And with Brazil, so much of winning the Cup and the Olympics back to back was couched in this idea that Brazil was about to announce itself to the world as a global power. There's such a strong emphasis on how Brazil would look to the world and very little emphasis on how Brazil would look to the people who actually had to live there.

CP: I think it was the president of FIFA who made some statement asking Brazilians not to use the Cup as a symbol of what ails the country, but not to recognize sports as a symbol is to misunderstand how people respond to them.

DZ: And it's so hilarious, too, because they want to have it both ways. They want sport to be a symbol of what's great about Brazil so they desperately want to use it politically when it suits their aims. But when it doesn't, it's, "Now, now, it's just a tournament."

CP: And Brazil is arguably home to the most ardent football fans in the world. Does the average football fan in Brazil understand that football isn't trying to displace them, but that FIFA and their government are?

DZ: A friend of mine who has lived in both Brazil and the United States emailed me and he said FIFA is about as popular in Brazil as FEMA was in New Orleans after Katrina. The whole reason why I called the book Brazil's Dance With the Devil was because of that line from The Usual Suspects about the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us that he didn't exist. FIFA has always operated in that way, very shadowy, very much on the margins. The protests and the independent media in Brazil have dragged them into the light.

CP: We're talking about unrest taking place in another hemisphere and around a sport that, while fandom is growing in the US, doesn't have the same recognition as baseball, basketball, and American football. Why should Americans care about how this plays out? Do we have anything at stake in this?

DZ: There are huge stakes because the United States, as I've written about a lot, has operated with the sporting shock doctrine in cities around the country. You look at the cities of the former Rust Belt-Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit-and you see deindustrialization and you see these mega stadiums. So the stakes are high in the framework of how sports operates within the framework of the global economy. Baltimore and Camden Yards is a textbook example of this.

Dave Zirin presents Brazil's Dance With the Devil at Red Emma's May 29 at 7:30 p.m.