A book review of Dave Zirin, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil

1st Royal Engineers, who reached the first FA cup final in 1872, from Wikipedia Commons
1st Royal Engineers, who reached the first FA cup final in 1872, from Wikipedia Commons

With the World Cup starting in Brazil this week, it’s worth reviewing a book on Brazil, soccer and international sporting organizations. Dave Zirin is a well-known sports writer who has covered other major events, such as the summer Olympics in Athens. HIs book seeks to explain why preparations for the World Cup, as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics, have created a wave of protest within the country. The book is written in a popular style, by a non-expert in Brazil. The strength of the book is his deep understanding of both FIFA (the International Soccer Association) and the Olympics. Overall, his book is a good introduction to the issues in a readable format. By the end the reader will have no difficulty understanding the current wave of outrage in Brazil caused by the preparations for these events.

One issue with this book is that Zirin is not an expert in Brazil, as he clearly acknowledges in the introduction. He also does not state that he speaks Portuguese, and he has relied on a research assistant while in Brazil. Notwithstanding this fact, he and his assistant interviewed slum-dwellers so as to balance the coverage of elite organizations with the voices of those people affected by preparations for the games. The central theme of the work was that Brazil’s decision to host these events was taken for reasons that mattered to the elites, not the masses, and that the implementation of many FIFA directives has undermined democracy in Brazil. Zirin has a deep knowledge of both FIFA and the Olympics movement, and he describes in detailed the authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism that have characterized both organizations. By the end of the book it almost seems difficult to believe that any nation would agree to host the Word Cup or Olympics. It is this ability to put events in Brazil into a global context that is the book’s greatest strength.

Zirin presents extensive evidence regarding the games’ impact upon average people. The Brazilian government has confiscated land from the poor to make stadiums that are unlikely to be ever needed again. Workers have been pushed to work in unsafe conditions to meet the deadlines set by the government. Most worrying, the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure has taken funding away from other pressing needs, in particular schools and health care centers. What particularly infuriated many Brazilians was that existing stadiums were destroyed to build new ones that were “up to FIFA standards.” In practice, what this meant in Brazil’s most famous stadium, Maracaña, was that the standing space for the poor was eliminated, to create private boxes that could only be used by the very wealthy. This work took place even though the stadium had undergone $200 million in repairs only a few years before. Many Brazilians did not believe that many of the projects associated with the World Cup were truly necessary. For example, Brazil has spent $345 million on a stadium in the Amazon, with little evidence that it will be needed in the future: “The Amazon is already home to a stadium that draws far less than its capacity. Why do all this for just four World Cup matches?” Finally, the security arrangements have been onerous, and sometimes seem to be as much designed to protect FIFA marketing by cracking down on the informal sector, as for ensuring the security of the athletes and spectators.

The nature of infrastructure improvements has also caused protest. Brazil sold two of its airports in November 2013 to private consortiums, as it struggled to improve its infrastructure for tourism, and to keep down budget deficits exacerbated by the spending for these events. People believed that the government prioritized investments in air travel, even though only a fraction of Brazilians could afford to fly, so that it would not help most citizens. According to Zirin, as many as 200,000 people may be displaced from their homes “as a direct result of the World Cup.” There is a suspicion that the government is taking advantage of these events to eliminate poor communities, so as to present a better face to the world. This perception inflamed nationalist sentiments because people believed that Brazilian policy was being dictated by international organizations not national needs.

Of course, hosting these events is a matter of national pride in a democratic economy that is larger than the United Kingdom. Indeed one state is wealthier than most Latin American countries: “São Paulo, all by itself, . . . has a higher gross domestic product than the next two biggest South American countries, Argentina and Colombia.” But these events reflect elite priorities, Zirin suggests, rather than the needs of most Brazilians. As a result, the current government is losing legitimacy.

Zirin’s book is a readable, informative and interesting book, which covers both the story of soccer in Brazil, and the sordid history of the World Cup and the Olympics. Although Zirin’s sympathies are always with the average Brazilian, he also provides critical but nuanced pictures of everyone from sports hero Pelé to former Brazilian President Lula. The final section of his book covers the protests that have swept Brazil since 2013. Zirin’s work is not an academic study, and does not reflect a deep historical knowledge of Brazil. At times I would have liked to have seen more information on the cultural history of soccer in Brazil. But it provides a good context to understand the upcoming mega-events in Brazil, and how these events fit into a historical context. In an era of cultural globalization, it also reflects a critical look at the economics and politics that shapes modern sports.

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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