Selling Brazil – review of Dave Zirin’s “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil”

Ruth Lorimer reviews Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin, published by Haymarket Books.


Brazil’s President Lula, as he left office (as the most popular politician on earth) left a parting gift – Brazil was selected to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, the first country in many years to host the double whammy of international sports extravaganzas. As the events have loomed closer, the costs have ballooned out of control, the country is littered with ‘FIFA quality stadiums’ that will never be used again, corruption scandals have become completely endemic and thousands of people are fighting against displacement as Brazil is cleaned up for the benefit of the international press and real estate speculators.

This book is aimed primarily at an audience of American sports fans who have seen massive protests erupt in Brazil and want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. As a Londoner, many of the themes are depressingly familiar from the 2012 Olympics – the spiralling costs and repressive security infrastructure that comes as standard with these mega-events (remember when they stationed snipers on the roofs of council estates?), and especially the construction and ‘regeneration’ frenzy that eats up public money and space and vomits out luxury apartments and shopping centres. But if you haven’t experienced it first-hand, this book is a great exposé of the international-mega-event industrial complex.

Two themes are explored in detail – the myth of political neutrality in sport (especially the Olympics), and the cultural and political importance of football in Brazil. Zirin charts the alarmingly consistent appointments of fascist sympathisers to head up the International Olympics Committee (IOC) throughout the 20th century, and reminds us that many of the features we now associate with the Games were actually inventions of the 1936 Olympics hosted by Hitler. Despite all the froth we often hear about sport ‘bringing people together’ and promoting peace, the Nazis were clear that ‘athletes and sport are the preparatory school of the political will in the service of the state’ (p.155), and nationalism has always been an intrinsic part of the competition. When Brazil was selected to host the 2016 Games, it was seen as an opportunity to present the country as a first class nation, ready to take its place in the international community as a serious capitalist power. The contradictions between this and the brutal costs borne by the poor to make the Games possible – especially the huge scale of displacement, focused on turning the favelas of Rio de Janeiro from embarrassing evidence of inequality, poverty and racism into more socially acceptable real estate speculation – are what’s made people angry.

Where nationalism and pageantry have long been part of the Olympics, the World Cup and FIFA were originally just a means of standardising the rules of international football. And while the Olympics were always elitist (the celebrated ‘amateurism’ effectively keeping out anyone who couldn’t afford to play sports without getting paid), football has always been seen as, in some ways, the people’s game. Nowhere has this association been stronger – or at least, more effectively exploited – than in Brazil. Giving a whistle-stop tour of the country’s history, Zirin shows how football was used by the Brazilian state to forge a national identity for a people divided by the legacy of slavery and oligarchy. As the game grew in popularity amongst the urban poor, Brazilian players adapted the style and made it their own, adding a flair and flamboyance that has its roots in samba and capoeira, traditional Brazilian dance and martial art forms with powerful cultural connotations of resistance to slavery.

As football has become more profit-driven, Zirin argues that this flair that made Brazilians love football so much in the first place is being drained out of it, replaced by a regimented, ‘standardised’ style. This was combined with the stampede of white elephants in the 2014 World Cup, as huge ‘FIFA quality stadiums’ were built or renovated in 12 cities across the country, including places which could barely fill their existing stadiums. The exorbitant costs of this were taken out on the public purse, the construction workers’ health and safety, and the iconic monuments of Brazil’s football history such as the Maracanã stadium – once a beloved popular institution, now an exclusive venue surrounded by an exclusion zone to keep out street traders, whose standing areas have been replaced by VIP boxes. The general feeling that explains people’s anger was that ‘FIFA had vomited all over Brazil’. People demanded ‘FIFA quality schools’ instead of the gross over-spending on the World Cup, which was drenched in corruption both in Brazil and within FIFA itself.

One of the most intriguing ideas in the book is taken from Jules Boykoff, author of Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. According to Boykoff, ‘celebration capitalism’ is the flipside (or as he calls it, the ‘affable cousin’) of disaster capitalism, Naomi Klein’s term for the tactic of smuggling in neoliberal reforms while populations are reeling from the shock of some extraordinary event – a terrorist attack, natural disaster or outright military invasion. Celebration capitalism aims for the same result, but under cover of spectacle and warm fuzzy feelings of national pride instead of disaster.

Marxists have always pointed out that one of the problems with capitalism is that it is crisis-prone, meaning economic crises where the endless cycle of accumulation stops and causes the whole system to stall. The theory of celebration capitalism is about the system’s legitimacy crisis. The ‘special circumstances’ of global mega-events are increasingly used as an excuse to pass new laws (or simply ignore the law altogether) that allow private interests, backed up by powerful states, to strip people of their rights and resources. Unfortunately for the powers that be, the feedback effect of this often makes the problem worse – the more extreme the economic crisis, the more dazzling the celebration needs to be, but that in turn increases the cost and exacerbates the crisis of legitimacy. The story in Brazil is that the costs of the celebrations are now so huge that even the spectacle of the World Cup and Olympics combined aren’t enough to distract people.

Perhaps the big picture here is that, with celebration capitalism, nationalism and spectacle are advertised as the products that we as consumers are expected to buy into, but the real marketing is aimed at investors. The Olympic Games have become synonymous with urban remodelling and re-imagining on a colossal scale, as cities – and indeed, nations – are refashioned for the gaze of foreign investors and international elites. Barcelona, London, Vancouver, and Athens (disastrously) were all rebuilt for the Olympics in processes which were explicitly referred to by their governments as being designed to boost the economy by attracting foreign investment, and to create an image of the host city as ‘world class’ and the host nation as a global economy. This ritual preening is the new advertising, as governments, acting as facilitators of the market rather than any kind of check on it, promote their countries to international speculators. The ramping up of inequality that we think of as the open secret of the mega-events is actually part of the show, as investors want to see low labour costs. The package on the market is the economy itself, complete with business friendly tax regime, a weakened trade union movement, a passive population and a corporate urban environment.



Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin (£13.99) is published by Haymarket Books. It is available direct from the publisher’s website (North America), or from here (UK and Europe), as well as Amazon.

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