Love football – hate Fifa

Issue: 144

Des Barrow

Dave Zirin, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy (Haymarket, 2014), £11.99

Dave Zirin is a left wing sports writer from the United States who has written extensively on the Olympics, including a biography of John Carlos. Here he digs beneath the shiny surface of Brazil projected by the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and details how they are using mega sporting events—the 2014 football world cup and 2016 Olympic Games—both to promote an image (of a stable democracy and a powerhouse economy), and as tools with which to further their neoliberal project. Millions of Brazilians marching on soccer stadiums wasn’t part of the plan. And the protesters have got more to be angry about than a rise in bus fares. Zirin explores the resistance of the Brazilian people to the spending cuts, environmental destruction, broken promises, historical revision, tooling up of the police and demolition of favelas that first burst onto the streets in spectacular fashion during the Confederations Cup in 2013.

When Lula stepped down after eight years as president in 2011, he did so as the world’s most popular living politician, who had cut infant mortality by a staggering 40 percent and increased the minimum wage by 50 percent. The PT had apparently transformed the economy from one which, in 1998, required the largest rescue package in the history of the IMF: 41 billion dollars plus. A mere decade later Lula could boast that Brazil was lending money to the IMF! Brazil overtook the UK to become the world’s fifth largest economy in 2011. But the underlying fragility of the economy that Zirin exposes has, since the book was published, developed into recession, and just in time for the FIFA world cup.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, led the PT to a third successive victory and its greatest number of seats; but as the recession takes hold and disillusionment grows, it looks like the PT might well lose the coming election.

Zirin’s hope is to challenge the notion “that hosting these kinds of sporting mega events is something to which countries should aspire”. Along the way he demolishes the conventional wisdom about Brazilian development, reminds us why putting our faith in reformist leaders is a mistake and gives voice to “the fighters for social justice, the community organisers, the residents trying to save their homes”.

At the heart of the PT’s economic plan is a neoliberal agenda whose real beneficiaries have been the same oligarchs who have had Brazil sewn up ever since it was the largest and most brutal slave state in the world. After hiking up interest rates and slashing public spending Lula became known as “the IMF’s favourite president”. The stock exchange grew at a rate of 523 percent in the first decade. Between 2006 and 2008 the number of millionaires increased by 70 percent, and a highly regressive taxation regime is in place. Becoming the world’s leading beef exporter has gone hand in hand with land grabs and a hostile attitude to the landless peasant movement. Offshore oil exploitation has been a disaster for the environment. While the PT recognises Palestine as an independent state, Brazil’s own indigenous people are being marginalised. And the brutal history of slavery is being sidelined. Not only that, but the trade union movement from which Lula came has been co-opted by the PT, and now represents just 17 percent of workers, compared to more than 30 percent under the dictatorship in the 1980s. Many in the social movements have turned their backs on political parties following the disillusionment. Building a new workers party will be harder because of the current one. But the protests are coming at a time when economic growth has slowed to just 0.9 percent.

Enter the sporting mega events: “It cannot be overstated just how invested Brazil’s elite are in seeing these games come off without a hitch”, Zirin writes. But those below have a different perspective:

Brazilians are outraged that services like transportation, education and healthcare are inefficiently run or woefully underfunded yet spending for the world cup alone could reach the fifteen-billion-dollar mark—which would make it more expensive than the previous three world cups combined.

Outraged also by the disgusting waste of money (eg building a 42,000 seater stadium in Natal, a place where the biggest team gets an average crowd of 5,000), or the gutting and rebuilding of the Maracanã, one of the world’s most famous football stadiums. Outraged by the bulldozing of the Indigenous Cultural Centre next door, to make way for…a parking lot (p19).

Zirin shows how, historically, FIFA and especially the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are completely dedicated to making the largest sums of money they possibly can for themselves and their sponsors, leading to corruption and a moral compass that points to the most compliant and often dictatorial regimes in the world.

He elaborates throughout the book referencing Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, whereby the requirements of FIFA and the IOC are used to justify measures from taking people’s rights to taking people’s homes. What Jules Boykoff calls “Celebration Capitalism” (“the public pays and the private profits”) allows a ‘security architecture’ to be put in place and militarisation of the police. Examples from the Olympic Games of the last ten years back up the case (did you know the London Olympics saw the deployment of more troops than the UK ever had on the ground in Afghanistan?).

But it is the story of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro which is at the heart of this account; how the government is using these sporting events to justify the continuing war by police on favela dwellers; how they are using the world cup to force people and communities out, and hand the land over to developers and the rich. And of course the resistance. Vila Autódromo, a favela lined up to be raised in order to make way for an Olympic Car Park, organised, fought back, and prevented the eviction; in the process, they say, they “have grown as individuals and as a community”.

Zirin’s final segment is entitled “The Nobodies”, meaning the ordinary people of Brazil who have created the “culture, play, dance and energy” of the country; people who FIFA and the IOC are happy to see swept away for their corporate money fests. There’s an us and them. “It is their World Cup. But it is our world.”