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Joao Havelange, who as president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 transformed the world soccer governing body into a moneymaking behemoth and in turn a breeding ground for corruption that ostensibly has peaked in recent years, has died. He was 100.
The imposing Brazilian died at Rio de Janeiro’s Samaritano Hospital from a respiratory infection as the 2016 Summer Olympics track and field competition began at Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange. It was Havelange who in 2009 led Rio’s bid presentation to the International Olympic Committee, and he invited the members to “join me in celebrating my 100th birthday” at the 28th Olympiad he correctly believed would be held in Brazil.
Havelange the athlete made his mark not in soccer but aquatics, swimming for Brazil at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and playing water polo at the 1952 Helsinki Games. An imposing figure, he swam every morning before breakfast well into his 90s.
Havelange had been in charge of Brazil’s soccer federation for nearly two decades when he upset the status quo in international soccer by defeating incumbent Sir Stanley Rous of England in the 1974 election to become the first non-European to take the FIFA helm. He wasted little time in transforming FIFA from a sleepy administrative organization in Zurich into a worldwide juggernaut. As he put it, in his familiar deep-throated croat, perhaps in French, perhaps in his native Portuguese, “I found an old house and $20 in the kitty. On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion. Not too bad, I’d say.”
On his watch, FIFA membership expanded by a third, to more than 200 nations and territories–more than that of the United Nations. Among the additions was China, which left FIFA in 1958 but was coaxed back 22 years later, and South Africa, which was suspended from 1964 to 1976 but would go on to host the 2010 World Cup. But it was the minnows of the soccer-playing world that made Havelange’s long rule possible. The Brazilian saw that the end of colonial rule had created scores of new nation-states, and under FIFA’s one-member, one-vote statute, Fiji had as much clout as England or Italy. Adding members, no matter their status on the playing field, and sharing FIFA’s increasing largesse with them all but guaranteed his unprecedented five re-elections as president.
Havelange also gave those minnows a shot at international experience and dreams–however faint–of international glory. Quickly recognizing the power of television and the untapped potential of sponsorships, he expanded the World Cup from a stingy 16 nations to 24 and finally 32, and he created world championships for under-20s and under-17s. He also introduced the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and later the women’s under-20 championship.
This rapid expansion and transformation of world soccer from a relatively naive enterprise that missed any and all commercial opportunities into a $250-billion-a-year industry threw open the doors to corruption that has only been slowed by an aggressive probe by the U.S. Justice Department that has left an indelible stain on Havelange’s legacy. Havelange, who accepted no salary as FIFA president, enriched himself with kickbacks, and soccer officials worldwide eventually followed his lead–if they hadn’t already begun the practice. Among them were scores who have been recently indicted by the Feds. Havelange’s successor and loyal No. 2, Sepp Blatter, has not been ensnarled as yet, but he was banned from FIFA for eight years by its ethics committee in late 2015, six months after winning a fifth term as president. The suspension stemmed from his $2 million off-the-books payment in 2011 to former star player Michel Platini, the UEFA chief who had hoped to defeat Blatter in his bid for a fourth term that year but who dropped out of the race.
Havelange’s most spectacular take, shared by his then-son-in-law, onetime Brazilian soccer president Ricardo Teixeira, was nearly $22 million over nine years beginning in 1992 paid him by the body in charge of FIFA’s marketing and commercial rights, ISL, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Havelange and Teixeira ultimately paid back $6.1 million in a confidential settlement.
Havelange resigned in 2011 as a member of the IOC just days before its leadership was expected to suspend him and rule on claims that he accepted a $1 million kickback. That ended, after 48 years, his tenure as the committee’s longest-serving member. Two years later, facing suspension, he stepped down as honorary president of FIFA after FIFA ethics Judge Joachim Eckert called his conduct “morally and ethically reproachable” for accepting kickbacks from ISL. [August 16]
Comment: Heading into USA ’94, Americans had known little of the power of the World Cup and the power of soccer outside this country in general. On the eve of the 15th World Cup in their own backyard, they got an eye full of all that, along with the man behind it, Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange.
Ian Thomsen of the New York Times, reporting in December 1993 from the Las Vegas Convention Center, site of the 1994 World Cup draw:
Two hours before the globally televised presentation of the World Cup Final Draw, the soccer player whose work had largely made the ceremony possible still had not been told that he had been banned from appearing on stage.
“I don’t have any official word yet,” Pele said Sunday morning at a breakfast hosted by MasterCard International, an official World Cup sponsor which said Pele would continue to be its worldwide representative despite the controversy.
“All I know is that they said the names of the players appearing in the draw and I was not there,” Pele said.
The decision to bar Pele from the ceremonies had been made by his fellow Brazilian, Joao Havelange, the president of FIFA. The reason: a dispute between Pele and Havelange’s son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian soccer federation.
Pele has charged that a group with which he is affiliated bid $5 million for the rights to televise Brazilian league games, but that a rival group was awarded the contract, despite bidding $1 million less, because the Pele group refused to pay a bribe to Teixeira.
Teixeira responded by filing a defamation suit against Pele. Havelange, over the objections of FIFA’s general secretary, Joseph Blatter, and other officials of the sport’s governing body, then entered the dispute and ordered Pele removed from Sunday’s ceremony because he didn’t want to share the World Cup stage with Pele. He even refused to mention Pele by name at a news conference.
Members of FIFA and the World Cup Organizing Committee were unable to alter Havelange’s decision, which reportedly was made without discussion with either organization.
“FIFA has to respect the wishes of its president,” FIFA spokesman Guido Tognoni said. “I can’t add more.”
U.S. officials said Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman of the World Cup USA 1994 organizing committee, was livid over the decision to exclude the only household name in American soccer from the grandest ceremony in American soccer history.
Havelange then rebuked Rothenberg.
“Mr. Rothenberg would be disappointed if we withdrew the World Cup,” Havelange said. “Mr. Rothenberg has everything he wants. Nothing will be missing. The absence of one person is not going to affect the World Cup draw. Persons who don’t participate are not important.”
Pele said he would be in the audience of 3,500 at the Las Vegas Convention Center to see the group assignments of the 24 finalists drawn by movie stars, entertainers and star athletes–everyone but the world’s greatest player.
“His son-in-law, with the secretary of the Brazilian federation–they proposed to me something which I do not accept,” Pele said. “I do not accept corruption. You know the problems of Brazil. Corruption is a big problem here. What I want to make clear is, my problem is with the Brazil federation. I don’t accept their proposal for corruption. Everyone knows I am for Brazil, I want to help Brazil, I want Brazil in the final, I want the best for Brazil.
“Everybody knows I don’t have anything against Mr. Havelange and FIFA,” Pele said. “Mr. Havelange has been my idol since 1958. He has encouraged me, he has given the message to me. He is the boss of FIFA. He can say whatever he wants.”
Of course, it was Pele who made Brazil an international soccer power, which helped put Havelange in place to become FIFA president in 1974. And it was Pele’s decision to play for the North American Soccer League in 1975 that created the possibility for the World Cup to come to the United States almost 20 years later. Pele remains the only soccer name recognized by Americans.
“When I came here to play for the New York Cosmos, we started to talk of the World Cup coming to the U.S.,” said Pele, now 54. “They said, ‘Pele, are you crazy? The World Cup in the U.S.A.?’ But today the dream comes true. In my view, we are here today to start the World Cup. This makes me happy.”
The soccer world we know today is, for better or worse, what the arrogant autocrat known as Havelange hath wrought. For those who watched his career as FIFA strongman, this quote, to Time magazine in 1998, summed up Havelange:
“I’ve been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin. In Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times. When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion. Do you think a head of state will spare that much time for just anyone? That’s respect. They’ve got their power, and I’ve got mine: the power of football, which is the greatest power there is.”
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