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FORMER FIFA BOSS HAVELANGE DEAD AT 100

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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ROGERS FORCES THE MEDIA’S HAND … A BIT

Former U.S. international Robbie Rogers, who in February revealed that he is gay, made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, coming on as a substitute in the 77th minute of  L.A.’s 4-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders at the Home Depot Center.

The crowd of 24,811 greeted Rogers, who grew up in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, with polite applause, and he had five touches in an uneventful cameo.

The 26-year-old outside midfielder earlier played in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew and made 18 appearances for the national team.  Two years ago he headed to England, where he played in the second tier for Leeds United and eventually, on loan, in the third tier for Stevenage.  Injuries and the emotional strain of hiding his sexual orientation took their toll, and Rogers parted ways with Leeds last winter.  Although in announcing his homosexuality Rogers said he would take a break from soccer, he was training with the Galaxy two months later.  Two days before the appearance against Seattle, L.A. midfielder-forward Mike Magee was traded to the Chicago Fire, which held Rogers’ MLS rights, for Rogers.  [May 26]

Comment:  Rogers’ return to soccer was truly an historic occasion–an important step in America’s evolution in its view of gays and lesbians.  But that’s for the social scientists.  From a soccer standpoint, it was very revealing.  And no, not because diehard Galaxy fans seemed oblivious of their new midfielder’s sexual orientation.  (Their concern lay with the loss of the popular Magee, the team’s leading scorer.  For the record, Magee wanted a move to his hometown of Chicago for personal reasons.)

The Rogers story revealed a U.S. news media that still has trouble admitting that MLS, the league whose teams average more fans per game than the NBA and NHL, is major league in more than name alone.  Weeks ago, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines with the revelation that he is gay.  However, at age 34, with his season over and his contract with the Golden State Warriors expiring, it is uncertain whether Collins will ever step onto an NBA court again.  Now, along comes Rogers, who has bravely come out of the closet knowing full well that he will spend the next five months in the glare of a spotlight of his own making, thus forcing the media to write, as the cliche goes, the first draft of history.

On one end, there was the Los Angeles Times, whose headline the next day read, “Rogers’ small step onto field is huge.  In Galaxy debut, he is first openly gay male team player in U.S. major pro sports.”

On the other end, there was the New York Times.  Sportswriter John Branch, noting that “you can’t choose your heroes,” followed that with, “Such is the case for the movement of gays in sports–more specifically openly gay men in major North American team sports.”  Four paragraphs later:  “On Sunday night, the soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to play a major (sort of) North American team sport.”  Not long after, Branch’s New York Times colleague, Billy Witz, gave MLS a promotion of sorts, calling Rogers the “first … gay man to participate in a prominent North American professional league.”

So is Major League Soccer major league?  “Sort of” major?  Merely “prominent”?  In terms of TV ratings and average player salaries, it’s major league soccer because it is, by far, bigger than the country’s minor soccer leagues.  In terms of gleaming new stadiums, growing ranks of imported stars, plus growth potential based on grassroots participation numbers that make ice hockey’s look laughable, MLS is not only the country’s fifth major sport but its fourth, one rung on the ladder above the NHL.

For now, MLS is what the media tells the public it is.  If it is to gain recognition as a bona fide, honest-to-god major league, it will continue to come grudgingly.  As  the Los Angeles Daily News put it in a preview of the Galaxy’s next game, at New England,  “The Galaxy now play in a ‘major U.S. professional sport,’ according to the latest stories about the addition of Robbie Rogers.  So be it.”



BLATTER BLATHER

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber was struggling to remain diplomatic in the wake of recent comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who criticized MLS for its lack of progress.

Blatter told Al Jazeera television, in an interview broadcast December 28, that “there is no very strong professional league” in the U.S.  “They just have the MLS.  But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

He added that MLS was “still struggling” to lift soccer to the level of gridiron football, baseball and basketball in America.  “We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said.  “But we are now in 2012–it’s been 18 years.  It should’ve been done now.”

Countered Garber in an interview with the New York Times:  “We still have a lot of work to do–we understand and accept that.  But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.  [January 2]

Comment:  Blatter’s latest blatherings triggered a firestorm of criticism among American fans of MLS and Americans who simply believe the man should have been unseated when his first term as FIFA chief ended in 2002.  What was disappointing was how a man who, as FIFA general secretary, held America’s hand as it prepared for and pulled off World Cup USA ’94, could still have such a dismal understanding of this country.

Mainstream America really doesn’t know what to make of soccer.  An estimated 18 million of their countrymen and countrywomen and countrykids play the sport.  Its women’s national team is usually No. 1 in the world while its men’s national team, usually ranked around No. 30, is capable of beating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup and Italy in Genoa, then losing to Jamaica in Kingston. And its official national league, whose average attendance of 18,807 last season topped the NBA and NHL for the second year in a row, making it third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball in average gate, remains a television bust, stuck at 0.1 and 0.2 in the ratings.

What Blatter and mainstream America need to understand is that MLS is no measuring stick of soccer here.  America loves the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA a whole lot more than MLS, not because they’ve had a 74-, 152- and 47-year head start, respectively, on MLS, but because the NFL, MLB and NBA are the best at their craft in the world.  The NFL, MLB and the NBA play their game like they invented it because, well, they have.  Even the National Hockey League can make the same claim, if, for the sake of this argument, we co-opt our Canadian friends.  As for MLS, everyone in America knows that it’s not the best soccer league in the world, even those who know nothing about the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Italian Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga or the Brazilian and Argentine championships.  And it’s hard to imagine a time when an MLS, which has gone from crawl to hobble to jog in those 18 years, will have the means and talent to challenge those leagues.

MLS will continue to be a symbol, a happy, regular rallying point, for soccer here, but it will never be the heart–or reliable barometer–of our sport.  While the NFL can boast of astronomical television ratings and Major League Baseball can point to its tremendous total attendance figures, soccer in the U.S. quietly moves forward with a balance that should be the envy of the so-called “big four” pro team sports:  a professional league that continues to grow and improve, a competitive men’s national team, a world-class women’s national team, and those millions and millions or participants of all ages and both genders.  All underscored by a patience that Blatter doesn’t seem to possess.



THE USA’S RED, WHITE AND BLUE GREEK

Alkis Panagoulias, coach of the U.S. National Team from 1983 to 19985, has died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, at age 78.

The native of Greece  and naturalized U.S. citizen posted a 6-5-7 record as the USA’s coach, second in wins at the time to Walter Chyzowych (8-14-10 from 1976 to 1980).

Greek players were to wear black armbands in his memory during their upcoming European Championship quarterfinal match with Germany in Gdansk.   Panagoulias coached Greece from 1973 to 1981 and fom 1992 to 1994, guiding the Greeks to their first-ever World Cup appearance, in ’94.  He guided Olympiakos to Greek titles in 1982, ’83 and ’87, and he also coached Aris Thessaloniki and Iraklis.  [June 18]

Comment:  Panagoulias had the misfortune of presiding over perhaps the most frustrating and fruitless period in U.S. National Team history.  Worse still, it seemed as if no one cared–no one, that is, but Alketas “Alkis” Panagoulias.

A national team coach, of course, is paid to care.  But Panagoulias gave the U.S. Soccer Federation far more than it’s money’s worth in that department.  Chomping a cigar and sprinkling his brutally frank comments with profanities, the burly Greek battled with the federation and battled with the North American Soccer League, all the while leaving his players with no doubt as to who was in charge.  (He once told me in an interview that the team had “all these goddam California surfers,” such as Mike Fox, Paul Caligiuri, Kevin Crow, Jeff Hooker, Dale Ervine and Steve Sharp.)  Above all, he was unabashedly patriotic when it came to his adopted country and absolutely passionate as an advocate of the national team, trying with little success to explain to the media and public in general its importance in a country overwhelmingly indifferent to soccer.

A player for Aris before moving to America to earn a degree at NYU, Panagoulias turned to coaching and steered the New York Greek Americans to three straight U.S. National Open Cups beginning in 1967, back when that cup was more or less the championship for the country’s ethnic semipro clubs.

In 1983, with the U.S. having played only one match since a World Cup qualifier in 1980, Panagoulias was chosen by the USSF to succeed Chyzowych as coach of both the national and Olympic teams–a foreign-born coach with international experience and, presumably, an understanding of the American player.  And in a unique twist, his players were to play in the NASL as Team America.

Panagoulias recalled in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, “It was very difficult.  I first had to sell the league people and owners on the idea that the national team has to be the No. 1 team in the country.  We needed their players.  I was almost crying when I talked about the national team.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  They didn’t know from the national team.”

NASL club owners dragged their feet over what some regarded as a flawed grandstand play, most of the Cosmos players invited to join this grand experiment chose to stay in New York and Team America, based in Washington DC and featuring naturalized Americans like Alan Merrick and Alan Green and national team regulars Arnie Mausser, Perry Van der Beck, Dan Canter and Jeff Durgan, stumbled to a league-worst 10-20 record in their only season.

The following year, with Olympic soccer’s amateur restrictions rapidly crumbling, the U.S. was allowed to field its national team at the Los Angeles Games.  The Americans went 1-1-1 but it wasn’t enough to get them into the quarterfinals, and a golden opportunity to put soccer on front pages across the nation–or at least get the sport some airtime on Olympic broadcaster ABC–was missed.

Then in 1985, the U.S., needing just a draw at home to advance to the final three-team round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, lost to Costa Rica, 1-0, before a small but overwhelmingly pro-Ticos crowd in Torrance, Calif.

That heartbreaking defeat ended Panagoulias’ run as U.S. coach, but he bowed out knowing that he was right.  The sport desperately needed the rallying point of a successful national team, not yet another NASL championship by the Cosmos.  And without one, soccer in America would remain largely rudderless, a game much more fun to play than to watch.  Unfortunately for Panagoulias, it would take many years, other coaches and several generations of American players for the country to actually experience what this passionate Greek had been talking about.



THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED

In the first-ever regular-season European soccer match televised by a major American television network, Manchester United strengthened its grip on the top spot in the English Premier League by knocking off Chelsea, 3-1, at Old Trafford.  Chris Smalling, Nani and Wayne Rooney scored to give the Reds a three-goal lead at halftime.  Chelsea’s Fernando Torres scored a consolation goal but later missed when presented an open net.  Rooney also misfired on a penalty-kick attempt.  [September 18]

Comment:  Do not adjust your set.

Those guys in shorts on your screen really were playing football, on an NFL Sunday.  And it came courtesy of Fox–not Fox Soccer Channel, its cable offspring.  The game was aired in the U.S. on a delayed basis, either before or after Fox’s regional NFL telecast, thus creating an unprecedented football-gridiron football doubleheader.

The Manchester United-Chelsea game was the first of four Sunday EPL matches that will be aired this fall on Fox, the network no doubt encouraged by the number of viewers–2.6 million–it drew for its live telecast of last May’s UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Man. U.

Nearly 20 million Americans routinely tune in to watch NFL games.  Whether that means that many of them tuned in to see the New Orleans Saints beat the Chicago Bears, then stuck around to watch the doings in the Theater of Dreams, is very questionable.   Joe Six-Pack isn’t easily converted, whether it’s politics, religion or, more important, sports.   Nevertheless, Fox’s gambit sends a warning shot across the bow of those who continue to dismiss soccer as a sport with no future on American TV.

A month ago, NBC and Major League Soccer announced a $36 million, three-year deal that basically shifts MLS coverage from FSC, which reaches approximately 40 million homes, to the NBC Sports Network (known at present as VERSUS) and its 76 million homes.  Beginning in 2012, NBC and the cable NBC Sports Network will show a total of 49 MLS games a season, including four U.S. National Team matches.  Of those, the NBC network will air two U.S. games, two MLS regular-season matches and two MLS playoff games.

ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 remains in the game:  it still holds the rights to MLS games, including the MLS Cup, through 2014.  But as MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the New York Times, “The three-year deal [with NBC] allows us to align all our TV relationships [ESPN, Univision and newbie NBC] to end concurrently at the end of the ’14 season and provides us with a potential opportunity to have a more exclusive relationship with a broadcaster.”

By then, the ratings numbers from another World Cup, driven by that coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, will be in.  Then the fight over that admittedly modest-but-growing TV soccer pie will begin in earnest.

Hard to believe that when MLS launched in 1996, it had to pay ABC/ESPN for air time.  In a country where a sport’s worth is measured by its TV contract, that’s a bit of progress.



MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER, SANS NEW YORK, PRESSES ON

The San Jose Earthquakes upset the New York Red Bulls, 3-1, before a disappointed sellout crowd of 22,839 at Red Bull Arena, eliminating New York in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals by a 3-2 aggregate. 

The conference champion Red Bulls, 1-0 winners in the first leg in San Jose, had tied the home-and-home series at 2-2 in the 78th minute as captain Juan Pablo Angel, playing what was likely his last match for New York, headed home a Juan Agudelo cross.  But the eighth-seeded ‘Quakes quickly replied when Bobby Convey, scorer of San Jose’s first two goals, set up a headed strike by young sensation Chris Wondolowski.  [November 4]

Comment:  If the MLS founders knew back in 1996 that their league would go 15 seasons without its largest market club winning a championship, their first question would be how their highly vulnerable project could possibly have survived 10 seasons.

Nonetheless, MLS has progressed (survived would be too tepid a description, thrived too strong) despite lacking the Big Apple glamor enjoyed by its predecessor,  the North American Soccer League.  While the New York Cosmos won five NASL titles over 10 years, the MLS championship has gone to minor markets like Columbus, Kansas City and, yes, San Jose.  That’s a decade and a half without the New York Times and other media outlets there giving a good blankety-blank about domestic soccer in the midst of a gridiron football season.

If MLS simply must conquer New York to make a dent in the media capital of the world, it may have found the solution.  A group called New York Cosmos LLC, an English-backed group fronted by Pele, is bidding to join MLS, and Commissioner Don Garber has said he would prefer that the league’s 20th club be based in New York.

That’s the ticket:  Put enough teams in the Big Apple and, sooner or later, one will win an MLS championship.