Brazil’s Dance with the Devil

brazil's dance with the devil

That we are fascinated by marketing should come as no shock to anyone reading here. That we are fascinated by sport may surprise a few, but not those who have dug a little deeper into our oeuvre. That we are fascinated by Brazil – okay, that one may feel like it comes out of left field. But we are. Its music, its literature, its soccer, are all magical to us. Jobim, Machado, Ronaldinho, – in so many ways it is as if the laws of nature do not apply in Brazil. As if, on occasion, gravity, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics take a holiday there as well.

Thus a book that combines all three – along with a healthy helping of socio-political commentary – is right up our street. And while there is much in Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy that is upsetting, disappointing and infuriating, it is a book that every marketer, sports fan, and citizen should read and consider deeply.

Why? Because the Olympics and the World Cup are mirrors that show us who we are at a given point in time, despite the fact that it often takes us decades to understand just exactly what we were seeing. About people who are different from us. About people who are different from us even as they beat us in sport and competition. They ask us to think about how we portray the lives, cultures, and politics of people who are different from us. And our own lives, cultures and politics in the context of theirs. To think about commerce and business and economy and more. And you may say these are heady questions for things that are simply entertainments. But of course, they are not just entertainments. Think of Berlin in 1936. Mexico City in 1968. Munich in 1972. They are more. They are the planet’s pre-eminent global marketing events, multi-billion dollar extravaganzas that have, as Zirin explains, transmogrified from mere quadrennial sporting tournaments into opaque non-governmental organizations with the power to fundamentally alter nations.

As a result, Dance with the Devil is a difficult book to describe, because of all it covers and the many directions it appears to go at once (proving that the magic of Brazil has seeped into the form as well as the content of this book). There is the history of Brazil. There is the history of the Olympics. There is the history of the World Cup. And then there is the story of how all of them came crashing together in 2014 and 2016 when that ancient Island of the True Cross hosted the tournaments back-to-back.

And to make things even more complicated, Zirin must walk a fine narrative line as well. On the one hand, he cannot make Brazil merely a metaphor for all nations who host these massive events; all nations are, of course, unique and distinct entities, and the story of Brazil’s Rio hosting the Olympics in 2016 is not exactly the same as London in 2012 or Beijing in 2008. But on the other hand, if Zirin makes this too specifically Brazil’s story, then the lessons to be learned here will be easily dismissed, and the horrors and “frog boiling” that are being perpetrated will continue unchecked for years to come.

A complicated remit, indeed, and to pull it all together as seamlessly as Zirin does here is an admirable feat. From on-the-ground, in-the-favela reporting to wide-ranging, deep-dive research, Zirin has put together a highly readable, incredibly enlightening, work. Depressing, dis-spiriting and infuriating, yes, but that’s not his fault. It is simply the nature of the story he is telling.

Why? Because here’s the thing; we like watching the World Cup. We personally have covered tournaments and qualifiers and friendlies and leagues extensively. And we like watching the Olympics, and have written about why here. And yet we are horrified by the systemic abuses that make these events possible – and that are shoveling literally billions of dollars into the hands of a chosen few. So what do we do when faced with the overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence of Zirin’s reporting?

Zirin does not offer a solution, and he does not have to. But the book begs for one from the rest of us; what do we want the Olympics and World Cup be? Does their massive size make it necessary to always uproot and displace the poor in order to facilitate them? Does their cost and expense simply require us to enslave foreign workers to build the stadia to house the events? Is it fundamental to their existence now that we funnel billions of dollars in graft to bring them to life? And do we really have to turn our cities into Orwellian police-states in order to safely execute them? Is this what we want?

Questions for us, because remember, it is still up to us. We still hold the cards. The card of money that we spend on the products that sponsor – and therefore fund – the Olympics and World Cup. And the card of our votes – that elect political leaders who can decide what is acceptable within their country and what is not, and who remember that these tournaments are a celebration of something more than their own tawdry personalities.

We still hold the cards. Which means we are still responsible. Which is why marketers should pay attention.

And which also means at the end of the day, it’s not really Brazil’s dance with the devil after all.

It’s ours.

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin was published by Haymarket Books on 05/27/14 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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