“In the twenty-first century, the World Cup arrives with a terrible price.”
The World Cup is now less than a week away, but having just finished Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, I am not sure I still have the appetite for it. I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. Dave Zirin’s latest book is a sobering and at times chilling look at the ways in which the upcoming World Cup and Olympics are wreaking havoc on Brazil. It is as excellent as it is depressing.
Above all, this is a remarkably well-reported book. Where David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation was mostly an outsider’s history of Brazil, relying on archives and news outlets, Zirin tells an intimate story by diving into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and talking to the people who call them home. Zirin provides humanity and empathy to the problems facing Brazil and by the end it is hard not to be outraged. Though he goes to lengths not to glorify or diminish the poverty of the favelas, he gives their residents a voice and makes it painfully clear why the loss of these communities should not be accepted.
Unfortunately, it is par for the course for large sporting events. Communities and other non-commercial entities are pushed out by an expanding security state. Public funds inevitably end up in private pockets, and changes made for these “mega-events” are rarely rolled back afterwards. “The countries change, but the scenario stays the same,” he writes. Zirin dedicates an entire chapter to the how much of the same process was undertaken for the Olympics in Athens, Vancouver, and London. Rio is next in that line. FIFA has caught on, too; South Africa faced many problems now facing Brazil. And as Zirin puts it:
The World Cup, even though it is a smaller, less expensive operation than the Olympics, is actually a greater danger to these communities precisely because, as mentioned, it reaches out, octopus-like, with tentacles in cities and towns all over the country.
Brazil is caught in the rare confluence of those two storms, and what’s more it has been building for this. The Olympics and World Cup, far from inventing problems, are the culmination of political plans. Zirin writes that they have “provided something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: the consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals.” It is about marketing Brazil as a destination, a place where poverty isn’t eradicated but swept under a red carpet, away from the public eye.
And so it is entirely justifiable that the Brazilian people have come out in droves to protest. But beyond being unprecedented, it was unexpected. Zirin states at the beginning of the book that he knew he would write about Brazil, but “with soccer-loving Brazil saying nary a word about the Cup; I reasoned that protests, if any, would be laser-focused around the Olympic games.” However, as Goldblatt noted, Brazil is no longer letting the beautiful game get in the way of its problems.