Sporting Shock Doctrine: Dave Zirin on the World Cup, Olympics and Brazilian Democracy

In Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics and the Struggle for Democracy, Dave Zirin peels back the colorful FIFA curtain of publicity that currently blankets sporting sites across the globe to reveal the repression, deaths, displacement and corruption that paved the way to the 2014 World Cup, and the the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics to follow.

Reviewed: Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin, (Haymarket Books, May, 2014).

A piece of street art, depicting a crying boy with a plate that holds a soccer ball in place of food has gone viral, exposing Brazil’s popular discontent with the World Cup. While the mural was painted after sports commentator Dave Zirin wrote his latest book Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics and the Fight for Democracy, the book contains an explanation of the image’s volatile history.  In Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, Zirin peels back the colorful FIFA curtain of publicity that currently blankets sporting sites across the globe to reveal the repression, deaths, displacement and corruption that paved the way to the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics to follow.

In this critical exposé, as in his other numerous books and articles, Zirin has the amazing ability to make sports interesting to those who have never been fans of spectator games. Brazil’s Dance with the Devil reveals a fascist history of the Olympics, a bleak history of the World Cup during military dictatorships, and the inspiring tales of thousands of people who struggled to keep the wrecking ball from demolishing their modest homes in the Rio poor marginalized hillside communities, called favelas.

For those who know neither the history of Brazil nor of soccer, Zirin helps the reader understand both.  “The relationship between soccer and Brazil is not so much about sports as it is about national identity,” writes Zirin.  He goes on, “It is the connective tissue in a country defined by different cultures crashing together in violence and beauty.”

In a chapter entitled “There Is No Sin Below the Equator,” Zirin lays bare Brazil’s brutal history of three centuries of enslavement of over three and a half million indigenous and African peoples, half of whom died in passage. The descendants of the survivors make up half of the country’s current population. While Brazil’s black and indigenous people are still often treated as second-class citizens, the government prides itself on being a multicultural nation where racism doesn’t exist.  According to Zirin, the diversity of Brazil’s soccer stars plays into this vision of racial harmony and their images have been marketed as such.

Introducing nearly every chapter with a quote from Eduardo Galeano’s book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Zirin describes how the people’s sport has been commodified, sold to the highest bidder and exported. Zirin gives a brief history of important futebol stars, stadiums and teams.  He introduces us to Pelé, the Afro-Brazilian sports star whose likeness was captured on postage stamps during Brazil’s military dictatorship and who was the first athlete to market his own name as a brand.  When asked to comment on poverty in Brazil, Zirin writes that Péle gave a standard response, “God had made people poor and his function in their lives was to use his God-given athletic greatness to bring joy into their difficult lives.” However, according to a recent Zirin article, the current exorbitant government spending has even lead Péle to question why more of the money spent on cup infrastructure wasn’t spent on schools and hospitals.

Zirin also introduces us to a soccer legend Sócrates, who recently passed away, but would surely be leading the vocal opposition to the World Cup decadence if he were still alive.  In the 1980’s, Sócrates headed the communist leaning soccer team, Corinthians, which openly supported political messages, denounced military dictatorships and made decisions collectively. “There will be lots of public money disappearing into people’s pockets. Stadiums will be built and they will stay there for the rest of their lives without ever being used,” Sócrates commented, when asked back in 2011 if he thought the 2014 World Cup would help alleviate poverty in Brazil.

For those who are unaware of the history of these two massive sporting spectacles, Zirin describes their vastly different origins: while the Olympics was created in 1896 as a bellicose pissing contest between imperial powers, the World Cup has much more humble beginnings, born out of FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, which was only created to help regularize soccer rules. However different their origins are, Zirin lets us know that both have provided legitimacy to military dictatorships and fascist regimes from the Olympic torch born in Nazi Germany to the World Cup fixed under Argentina’s brutal dictatorship, the each of these games have occurred with full fanfare, and without acknowledging the bloodshed surrounding them.

Zirin lets us know that this is not just a scenario of the past, but one that has been transformed in a post 9/11 world where the games have served as “neoliberal Trojan horses” ushering in massive surveillance infrastructure and political repression. During the 2012 Olympics in China and the 2014 Games in Russia, little attention was paid to the governments’ continual human rights violations. In preparation for Olympic games in Vancouver (2010) and London (2012), those governments rolled back civil rights to squash dissent. The 2022 World Cup destined for Qatar, has come under sharp criticism for labor violations, its stadiums constructed by enslaved migrant workers, hundreds of which have died in the process.

“The countries change, but the scenario stays the same: a profit orgy and a tax haven for corporate sponsors and private security firms, obscene public spending on new stadiums and the brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party’s over,” writes Zirin. He also questions why so few reporters go beyond the surface and actually investigate what is going beyond the games.

In Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, Zirin dedicates a whole chapter to Lula Inacio Da Silva, the two term Brazilian president, who came from a trade unionist background to power by riding on the backs of social movements including Brazil’s landless movements, only to later turn his back on his roots by becoming a neoliberal darling. It was Lula who successfully courted FIFA and the International Olympic committee so that Brazil could host not one but two mega-events in the course of just two years. Zirin writes that these two sporting spectacles are considered by some to be Lula’s swan song, allowing Brazil to receive long overdue respect and recognition on a global scale.

“Tragically, the World Cup and Olympics are not symbolic successes. They walk hand in hand with graft, austerity, security crackdowns, and a set of spending priorities that would have made the young Lula blush,” writes Zirin. Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff, who also comes from a leftist background and was imprisoned during the military dictatorship of the 1970’s, has also showed her true neoliberal colors by allowing corruption to reign during World Cup Stadium construction.

Zirin also creatively weaves personal and political prose describing journeys through the favelas to find a Michael Jackson tribute statue built when the pop star travelled to Brazil to film his controversial music video “They Don’t Care About Us.” Zirin recognizes and discusses his own fear during his first trips to Rio’s favelas,  a fear that was transformed into sheer appreciation of the creative resilience of favela residents in their determination to not only defy a criminalized image of themselves and their dwellings, but also to employ innovative ways to halt the wrecking ball.  For example, in the community of Providencia, the residents created a photo installation featuring portraits of all the residents who were going to be evicted for real estate plans in preparation for the Olympics.  Zirin also writes about the surveillance state and the vast police forces employed to “pacify” favela residents, not only to improve “security” for the world cup but also to make it easier to displace favela residents, allowing real estate moguls to prey on their once ignored and now prime properties. One issue that Zirin did not tackle, and which has been featured in alternative coverage of the World Cup, is a rising adolescent sex trade that has emerged in the lead up to the games.

In Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, Zirin never implies that he wants readers to stop watching sports or even boycott the world cup.  What he does want is for readers to understand the bloodshed and pillage that paved the path for Brazil’s World Cup and the Olympics. Zirin will be in Brazil during the first week of the Cup and sharing his smart political commentary on the games.  For all those interested in hearing the voices of the people outside of the stadiums, this book is essential reading for those moments when cheers, yells and GOOOOOOOOAL’s are not filling your television screen over the next month.

Andalusia Knoll is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City who will be in Brazil during the World Cup covering the people’s resistance movement. You can follow her on twitter at @andalalucha