Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy – Book Review

Reviewed: Brazil’s Dance with the Devil The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, By Dave Zirin. (New York: Haymarket Books, 2014.)

Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy is an engaging and timely book that examines how the World Cup and Olympics have each become a “Neoliberal Trojan horse” which serve as “incredibly effective tools for reorganizing an economy on neoliberal grounds” (116). Zirin describes this as a ‘sporting shock doctrine’ that imposes policies that are “crushing unions, privatizing health care and education, abolishing worker protections… and removing environmental protection” (73).

Zirin traces the historical connection between displacements, enhanced security tactics and mega-sporting events in order to highlight how the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have colluded with “authoritarian and fascist governments.” He outlines key moments in Brazil’s history of slavery and colonial repression in order to explain the “awe” that “Europeans felt when they first arrived.” He argues that recent efforts to “disneyfy, sanitize” and “criminalize” the favelas are comparable to the “civilizing mercy” in which “Europeans saw indigenous people of Brazil as deserving to be both enslaved and conquered,” a massive form of destruction based on objectification, and romanticism that required “subjugation in the name of human progress.”

Fans of the World Cup and Olympics, as well as critically and politically engaged readers, are invited to understand the significance of the current struggles in Brazil. Zirin offers an alternative narrative that avoids both the romantic and criminalizing language of mainstream coverage in the Favelas. Each chapter opens with statements from Eduardo Galeano as a way to capture the complexity of Latin America, making visible its beauty while demonstrating the legacy of destruction follows. Zirin’s account of Brazil’s soccer history is excellent, while Pelé and Garrincha’s (two of Brazil’s greatest soccer players) contradictory and opposing lifestyles will make soccer fans nostalgic, we are forced to understand the institutional hypocrisy deeply rooted in what is now a “neoliberal game.”

As an extension of Naomi Klein’s analysis of the “shock doctrine” of neoliberalism he weaves in a theorization of “celebration capitalism,” where Jules Boykoff argues that while “disaster capitalism eviscerates the state, celebration capitalism manipulates state actors as partners, pushing economics rooted in so-called public-private partnerships.” Followed by a “trickle up economics” that is intertwined with “happy-faced promises” of national unity, pride and joyous celebrations while justifying a “security architecture” that also works to “suppress and intimidate acts of political dissent” (117,170).

The author briefly summarizes Lula’s rise to the presidency, his involvement in founding the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) and their subsequent “negotiations” with neoliberalism. As the most popular president in Brazil’s history, he was successful in stabilizing the economy through “avid participation in free-marketeering and international finance”, making him well known as the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) “favorite president.” Lula also gained support by getting large parts of the population (millions of people) out of poverty by increasing funding for economic and social programs. However, in the midst of this recognition he also “succeeded in dismantling any kind of popular response to his agenda” (81). While looking closely at Lula’s “success” in tackling inequality, Zirin shows us that dominant social classes in Brazil actually “[became] more powerful”. He states that “land ownership … not only increased but has become more concentrated than fifty years ago”. Zirin is able to expose the “historical irony” of having a president in power that emerged from the militant left, while overseeing appalling labor conditions, corruption scandals, and dismantles popular resistance.

Reflecting on Zirin’s reading of Lula I wonder if the former president himself could be considered as the “Neoliberal Trojan Horse.” Not only did he nurture a political climate that facilitated the entry of mega-sporting events but also advocated for neoliberal investment that has been destructive to self-organized communities across the country.

Some readers, specifically activists and scholars who study Latin American history and resistance movements “from below” might be left wanting more than this book provided. Though Zirin outlines a crafty summary of key slave revolts, Brazil’s independence from colonial rule, and documents current efforts to resist displacement in the Favelas, he seems to overlook some movements that have played pivotal roles in the most recent protests and demonstrations. Mentioned as “the most important social movement organization in Brazilian history” there is little detail as to what the role of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) has historically been in nurturing a context of resistance and rebellion throughout the country over the last 25 years. Zirin argues that Lula’s success in “dismantling” popular resistance reflected through the “slowed…gains” of the MST, but neglects to mention if and how this reflected and influenced other resistance movements across the country. Many questions emerge around their role in not only inspiring resistance across the country, but shifting the grassroots perspective around land, property and sharing key strategies of resistance.

Additionally, though Zirin claims that the “youthful nature of the 2013 protests” (81) were reflective of “spontaneous and disunified” resistance, activists groups that have emerged over the past decade played key roles in building a broad base. Groups such as the “Movimiento Passe Livre” (Free Fare movement) are only briefly mentioned, while other key players such as the Comitê Popular da Copa (Popular Committee for the World Cup) received little to no mention at all.

I would also question Zirin’s statement saying that “If there is a kernel of hope for the favelas in the context of the World Cup and the Olympics, it is the number of foreign journalists who will make their way to Rio” (182). Without downplaying the role social and mainstream media has played in informing and networking movements, urban sectors and people at the grassroots have historically built cohesion and resistance through daily cultural and social practices. I would give priority to the social relations and efforts towards community formation that are “not always visible in wealthy communities” (11).

These are small quarrels that should not overshadow the success of such a massive project that introduces new categories that can be used to better understand and resist the competing interests of mega-sporting events.

Armando O. Carmona can be reached at <armando2k7 [at]>. He would like to thank Professor Cesar “Che” Rodriguez for providing valuable feedback and analysis.