In the beginning of Dave Zirin’s book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, one of America’s pre-eminent political sports writers tells us that he simply had to write a book about Brazil – a country, said one of his professors, that is certainly not for “beginners.” But Zirin is no beginner. He is the voice of reason in a country of unreasonable disparity.
He first starts in the favelas, one of them surrounding Rio’s Maracana, where hundreds of homes, once built by generations of families, were “cracked open.” Those residents were relocated, some moved hours away, some getting no compensation at all. Zirin visits these places, homes reduced to rubble.
Zirin then interviews journalists and academics, street sweepers and the indigenous peoples, as he searches for the meaning behind everything that has happened in Brazil over the past year. His latest book is an essential companion during the next few weeks. It examines what it means to be Brazilian and explains why FIFA is exploiting the land like its colonizers from Portugal so many years ago.
Of course, Zirin also covers the sport of soccer itself. He recounts the stories of the English coming to the shores with balls in their arms and factory workers playing in teams. Zirin writes about Pele, the ultimate professional and front man, and Garrincha, the “angel with bent legs.” And then there is his favourite, the Brazilian Socrates. This soccer legend was a “medical doctor, a musician, an author, a news columnist, a political activist, and a TV pundit,” but most importantly Socrates – “as bold as those national colours,” Zirin writes – fought against the early dictatorship of the 70s and 80s.
Zirin is upset about a lot of things, and he cuts through all the white noise and stereotypes about Brazil. He is angry that the Maracana was shaved down in capacity. Luxury boxes as well as VIP sections were instead added, places where “modern caesars can sit above the crowd.” Many people do not just talk about the games they played at the Maracana in Rio; they remember the numbers of people. Around 220,000 witnessed the tragedy in 1950, when Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the final. Now the Maracana has a capacity of just 75,000. Geographer Chris Gaffney called it “the death of the crowds.”
Then there was the institutional racism, which is not surprising given that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, in 1888. Those of African descent – “the hands and feet of Brazil,” writes Zirin – were given “nothing but freedom.” These people were desperately poor, even if they made up a significant part of the population.
After that, Afro-Brazilian footballers were not so welcome in the 1920s and 30s. They “took great pains to make no physical contact whatsoever with their opponents,” writes Zirin, “lest they risk reprisals.” So these descendants of slaves played gracefully and laid the foundations of o jogo bonito – the flicks and feints and flair were all like capoeira, the old warrior dance of the black slaves.
Over the decades the Afro-Brazilians and mulattos and whites would all play together, first for Rio’s Vasco da Gama and then for Brazil. Soccer brought together the immigrants – mostly Italians and Japanese – as well as the emancipated slaves, and they could all express themselves as uniquely Brazilian. (Zirin references this mosaic of Brazilian society and asks questions about so-called racial democracy in the country and how it came to be.)
Dictatorships that followed also began to use soccer as propaganda and as a mobilizing force. Slowly the sport in Brazil turned into commerce. Zirin is so entrenched in his studies that you can feel his sorrow through his words. Players were eventually exported and sold to European countries much like the gold and rubber in the centuries before. Brazil is still in some ways a vast mine.
Zirin also writes about the Olympics, but at this moment it is his writing on the World Cup that strikes hardest. The tournament has only given the government an excuse to militarize the country once again.
And now Zirin is there, choosing to watch games in the favelas and taking in the atmosphere outside the stadiums and in the heart of the poorer population, the forgotten masses. He is continuing to tell the story of the side of Brazil they don’t want us to see.
Protests are still happening, some in the low hundreds but some resembling the mass frustration of a year ago, when more than a million people poured on to the streets across Brazil during the Confederations Cup. About 200,000 Brazilians filled the streets just this Monday, according to Simon Romero of the New York Times, and the riot police continue to thwart the protesters with brute force. Dozens have already been arrested, and those arrests were violent. Reporters were injured – one shot in the eye with a rubber bullet, others with gashes to the arms – and even the police were seen squinting and crying, feeling the effects of their own tear gas, which they seemed to spray indiscriminately at times.
The tension comes like clouds as the protesters roll in. Vendors close their shops. But the sentiment will not die. “The police are under very clear instructions to tolerate nothing,” writes Gaffney on his blog, “and to react with maximum force.”
But it’s still the World Cup, and there are celebrations all over. It is just one of the latest of these mega-events travelling from country to country like a carnival act. “The World Cup is like a marvellous party,” says one youth activist in the book, “but what happens the next day when we’re hung over and the bill comes due?” Zirin not only answers this question but also asks why. There is so much to cover, but he does not waste time with the minutiae of history. This is a book he had to write, and it is one we have to read.