Dave Zirin shows us how sports writing can be more than box scores and statistics – it can help change the world
“In 1729, it was against the law [in Brazil] to construct new roads that would facilitate mining. In 1785, if you owned your own spinning mill or loom, you were ordered to burn it or the state would do it for you. Let us be clear about why this was happening: forced industrial underdevelopment. Deliberately stopping Brazil from industrializing ensured that European industry would reign supreme and Brazil would be used almost exclusively as a source of raw material.”
Sportswriter Dave Zirin goes deep in his latest book, Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. He uses the Portuguese (and later British) plundering and intentional underdevelopment and exploitation of the Brazilian people throughout history that created the foundation of the country to lay the groundwork and enable the current exploitation of the Brazilian people by organizations such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as the behaviour of the Brazilian government itself in its dealings with its own population.
Zirin has executed a masterpiece of journalism with this work.
You don’t usually think of books in those terms, but what else would you call an examination of this depth into injustice, using a historical context, examined from multiple angles, layered onto current issues we generally don’t see and are enraged by when they’re shown to us? This is 216 pages of long-form journalism that you just can’t put down if you care about sports, injustice, history, equality, or, your fellow humans in general.
He opens by putting you there, in Brazil, as he and his research partner, Zach Zill, explore Rio de Janeiro, on foot, and delight your senses with the sights and sounds of the favelas (“informal, working class communities”) of the city, reveling in their beauty and culture.
“The panorama unfolded in front of us,” Zirin writes, “brown granite hills jutting up dramatically from gentle green slopes, a thick urban patchwork of roads and buildings, the shimmering water of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and then the ocean just beyond.
“Kids were throwing paper planes off the hillside and chasing after them as they floated gently down. Music echoed off the squat little houses, cobbled together at odd angles. Neighbors shouted to each other across a passageway. Of course there was a dusty soccer pitch at the top of the hill, just beyond the plaza where the tram ended.”
Once you well and truly are “in” Brazil, Zirin takes you on a history lesson filled with slavery, celebrated race-mixing, Carnival, military coups, and some more slavery (okay, well, “slave-like conditions” that produced the “rubber soldiers” of the second world war who are still fighting for reparations), to show you why it looks like it does, before moving toward the present and getting you even angrier with the current government, the corporate douchebaggery at FIFA and IOC, and examining the validity of the protests and uproar of the people over the injustices being heaped upon them.
“If we get swept up in the World Cup, but forget the nobodies who are swept away,” writes Zirin, “then we should not be surprised when FIFA or the IOC comes calling again in our own towns and we find ourselves branded nobodies.”
Anyway, go buy this book. I don’t want to just keep telling you about the greatness of it (there’s a whole lot about various other huge sporting events, including the Vancouver Olympics, and about soccer in general, and about capitalism and…) because you’d be better off spending your time with the book itself.
It’s a tough read—in that Zirin just batters you repeatedly with well-illustrated terribleness that is hard to fathom—but it’s totally worth being battered with.
After all, as Zirin says, “It is [Brazil’s] World Cup. But it is our world,” and we all need to acknowledge the things that are wrong with it.