Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports | Zooming In

July 9, 2014

Brazil Sells Its Soccer Soul

Firebrand sportswriter Dave Zirin shares what he saw at the World Cup protests in Brazil.

Alex Eidman

There's not a lot to say about this World Cup that hasn't already been said. We've had oodles of goals, teeth accidentally falling into a shoulder, and the rise and fall of the World Cup's darling. Oh, and of course there's that incessant song that will have you cursing ESPN for weeks after the games are over.

Dave Zirin
"What the Olympics and the World Cup have allowed is a pretext to get people out of their homes by any means necessary."

Dave Zirin

But beyond the on-field joy and sorrow, there are some very real off-field issues to grapple with in Brazil. Ballooning costs, forcible displacement, and terrifying infrastructure accidents are a few of the narratives FIFA would rather forget. This World Cup is not an outlier in that regard. It's just another mega-event that comes with some very dark consequences—things like Olympic drone patrol or the imminent death of thousands of migrant workers building a FIFA microcity in a country too hot to host games in the first place. It's what former soccer player-turned activist Jules Boykoff calls "celebration capitalism."

So it comes as no surprise that Dave Zirin—champion of the underserved, sports columnist for The Nation and a Gelf mainstay—has made it the focus of his new book, Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy . In this interview, conducted by phone and edited for clarity, Zirin, fresh off his trip to Brazil, discusses mega-event militarization, the truth about Brazil's protests, and Pele's ambiguous legacy.

Gelf Magazine: The book is a pretty thorough takedown of the economics and the politics that underpin the Olympics and the World Cup. Are you watching the games right now?

Dave Zirin: Yeah, absolutely. I watched it when I was in Brazil earlier this month and got to go to a couple of games. I'm watching here, too. That's partly because I felt like if you don't understand why people find it so amazing, it's very difficult to write about how FIFA is able to get away with everything that they do. I'm excited to see what happens in the next games, and I'm also confident that the demonstrations that have surrounded this aren't going anywhere when the Olympics come up in the next two years.

Gelf Magazine: How do the more recent Olympics and World Cups compare to prior ones?

Dave Zirin: Costs are going up, up, up. When you couple FIFA and the IOC's demands to build new stadiums with the demands of industry inside a country—construction, real estate, tourism—all willing to sponsor these games if they get something out of them, that has caused the prices to go through the roof.
In addition, it seems like the security needs go up with every World Cup and Olympics, stemming from a post-9/11 world and increased fears about protests. There's internal pressure from FIFA and the IOC—and the military industrial complex's entire research and development departments that sell all the technology—that you need to have the latest gear, now including drones. So that's the evolution, or devolution, of these games. And all these games have had to deal with debt displacement and the militarization of public space.
I think what makes Brazil so different is that the people have fought back against it and I think what's led them to that has to do with the fact that the World Cup has taken the thing they love more than anything, soccer, and turned it into something that's alien them. That's created a reservoir of anger that no one really suspected.

Gelf Magazine: Taxpayer-funded stadiums are something you've been talking about for years. What got built in preparation for this World Cup, who paid for it, and what else wasn't built as a result?

Dave Zirin: Brazil has been in a mild recession in recent years after a long period of booming growth rates. Those growth rates are what gave [Former Brazilian President] Lula the confidence to say we are all in on hosting these events. This is the first time in 20 years any country has hosted the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back, and it's the first time ever both events are centralized around one city, Rio.
In this particular case, it's all about what wasn't funded. Lula and the Worker's Party had a very novel social agenda. They were all in on privatization of the economy but used the windfall they got to fund a whole series of social programs to fight inequality and starvation. They were doing everything the IMF and the international bond markets wanted, but they weren't cutting taxes for the super-rich. However, when the economy went into a recession, those social programs became illusory. But since they were already in with the World Cup and the Olympics, stadiums still had to get built, the security agenda had to be met, and the trains had to run on time. That's really what provoked this popular revolt.

Gelf Magazine: When people hear FIFA and the IOC, they immediately associate them with rampant corruption. Were they always this way?

Dave Zirin: Unlike the IOC, which started as an organization with a pomp-and-circumstance view of the glory of amateur athletics, FIFA started much more humbly. They were just going to be an organization that regulated the rules of soccer. That changed very, very quickly. In the 1930s, two decades after FIFA started, it handed two World Cups to Mussolini (Italy hosted the first of these in 1934). I say handed because the referees were likely under a threat of death and these tournaments are now viewed as having most likely been fixed. And so FIFA had already assumed this role as a global power broker. Where it would bring the World Cup, what leaders it would support—it always bended towards autocracy. That's lasted to this day—the World Cup will be in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Yeah, there may have been bribery there but it's also part of a FIFA tradition—going to places where they can have absolute control. Secretary of FIFA Jerome Valcke even made comments about Brazil saying it would be easier if the country was still under a dictatorship. This is nothing new.

Gelf Magazine: It seemed that people in South Africa and Brazil were initially excited about hosting the World Cup. Was this because they didn't know the costs their countries would incur?

Dave Zirin: For South Africa—that was the first time a sub-Saharan African nation had hosted the World Cup, so it was a huge honor. But then there was a ton of conflict about cost and an avalanche of racism. There was even a company selling form-fitting Kevlar vests to protect against stabbings. So a mentality developed: "We're gonna show these bastards that we can put on the best World Cup anyone has ever seen." And you could frankly understand that response. Of course, it was a little different in Brazil, since they had hosted before and had won five World Cups. So the efforts by FIFA to shame Brazil were far less effective.

Gelf Magazine: You talk about the massive level of displacement happening in Brazil. What are these people getting in return for losing their homes, and has it all been done in accordance with the law?

Dave Zirin: It's fascinating, because Brazil has some of the toughest squatter's rights laws and home-possession-rights laws in the world. Part of the reason it has that is because Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery in 1888. Former slaves came into the cities and established these communities called favelas. And their home rights needed to be protected for the purpose of national stability. But Brazil's been undergoing a real-estate boom over the last 10 years, so there's been this real pressure to get people to move from their homes. That pressure is funded by the construction and real-estate industries, some of the most powerful businesses in the country. The law in Brazil says you can't just throw people out of their home without their consent—it's actually a much tougher law than exists in the US when you consider eminent domain.
What the Olympics and the World Cup have allowed is a pretext to get people out of their homes by any means necessary. It's almost a national initiative. In this one favela I visited, there were 700 families when I visited, and now there are none. The first 100 were removed when police showed up, guns blazing, and said the families had to get out of their homes. They offered them a small amount of money, but said if they didn't take it, they'd get nothing. This was within 48 hours of Brazil landing the Olympics. The next 600 organized themselves and fought back and it made a difference: They got a better deal—more money or public housing. But that's as good as it gets. There are communities organizing to try to stay, but they're facing tremendous pressure. While [authorities] may not be able to physically oust people, they can stop trash collection, uproot trees, turn the street lights off. It's not pretty.

Gelf Magazine: Can you describe the protests you saw in terms of force, scope, and how they're being covered by the media?

Dave Zirin: The media is picking up on something that is an indisputable truth—that a year ago the protests were in the millions and now they're in the hundreds or thousands. But their conclusion is that everyone must be really happy from the World Cup. The protests aren't bigger because there is a real fear of backlash. There is so much heavy hardware on the streets—machine guns, tear gas—and that's created a different reality.

Gelf Magazine: Who in your mind have been some of the more prominent athletes to speak out against the World Cup?

Dave Zirin: A year ago, a lot of the Brazilian players spoke out in favor of the protests, but you're not seeing a lot of that now. First of all, that just shows how big the protests were—it was incredible. But there's clearly pressure being put on the players now not to say anything. Romario, the star of the 1994 Brazilian team who's now a politician, hasn't stopped speaking out. Socrates, the star of the 1982 team who passed away a few years ago, organized his entire team to be a public presence against Brazil's dictatorship and played a big role in bringing the dictatorship down. He spoke out extremely eloquently about the fate of Brazilian soccer and how neoliberalism affected world soccer. His death is something that really hurts.

Gelf Magazine: Would it make a difference if Pele spoke out?

Dave Zirin: Pele has been a public presence in Brazil for almost 60 years, since he was 16. He was supportive of the dictatorship; he criticized Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. Romario said about Pele, "He's a poet when he keeps quiet." If he was on the side of the protesters, people would be more surprised than anything. When I was there, he was in every commercial. He was advertising for King Supermarkets— wearing a crown, holding a scepter: shilling for anything that moves.

Gelf Magazine: It seems countries are starting to catch on to the burdensome costs associated with hosting mega-events. Even Mitt Romney, uber-capitalist, said they're not money makers. What happens when countries stop bidding instead of clamoring to host?

Dave Zirin: Great question. FIFA and the IOC will have to start subsidizing costs in a major way, or countries might stop asking.

Also on Gelf:
This is Gelf's sixth interview with Zirin. We'd previously spoken with him in 2013, 2012, 2010, 2008, and 2007.

Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


Article by Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.