Obituary: Joao Havelange
Controversial Fifa president who transformed football into one of the wealthiest industries on the planet
Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30
Joao Havelange, who died last Tuesday aged 100, was president of Fifa, the governing body of world football, from 1974 to 1998; in that time, he oversaw the transformation of the planet's favourite pastime into one of the wealthiest industries in the world.
Even his detractors - of which Havelange came to have many - admitted that he successfully modernised the administration of a sport that was nearly moribund when he ousted his predecessor, the English former referee Sir Stanley Rous. The game was then being run from a small villa in Zurich by a staff of a dozen who were content for the World Cup to remain a largely European affair.
Havelange's coup was mounted with the backing of Fifa's African, Asian and North American delegates, a deal that led directly to the doubling of World Cup finalists from 16 in 1974 to 32 by 2002. Whether this made for a better tournament was debatable, but it certainly made the game more global - as did many of Havelange's other initiatives, including his championing of women's and youth competitions; of funding for development of the game in the world's poorer regions; and of the return of China to the sport's fold.
In 1988 Havelange was even nominated for the Nobel Peace prize by the Swiss government.
His principal contribution to football, however, was to realise its potential for commercial exploitation, underlined by his urging that the World Cup be staged in America and later Japan - countries that were rich but which lacked substantial domestic audiences for the game. In fact, even under Rous, Fifa's revenues had started to increase substantially, but during Havelange's autocratic reign its income was to be of an entirely different order. Since all in football seemed to benefit from this, it was not until after his retirement that the secretive and allegedly corrupt manner in which Havelange had arranged matters came to be questioned.
Many of the allegations were made by the investigative journalist David Yallop in his book How They Stole the Game (1999), and later by the British investigative reporter Andrew Jennings, author of Foul! The Secret World of Fifa: Bribes, Vote-Rigging and Ticket Scandals (2006).
Among Yallop's claims was that, while head of the Brazilian FA, Havelange had plundered some $6.6m of its funds to finance bribes to national associations to vote for him rather than Rous.
There were also rumours that insurance companies, part-owned by Havelange, had been given the million-dollar contracts for World Cups, and that though Havelange drew no salary as president of Fifa, his annual "expenses" bill amounted to more than $1m.
To these charges, Havelange replied mostly with silence. Even to the casual observer, however, there appeared something amiss with his decision in the late 1970s to use as Fifa's exclusive marketing partner ISL, a firm controlled by Horst Dassler, the founder of the sportswear business Adidas.
ISL paid Fifa vast fees to obtain the television and sponsorship rights for successive World Cups, which it then sold on in turn to selected companies such as Coca-Cola. Thus, for the tournament in Mexico in 1986, Fifa received an unprecedented $32m from ISL; the trouble was that Dassler resold the rights at a profit of $128m.
In the late 1990s, Havelange pre-sold the television coverage to the first two World Cups of the 21st century for a sum which, 10 years later, began to look grossly undervalued.
Yallop was not alone in wondering what Havelange's real relationship might have been with ISL (which went bankrupt after Dassler's death), or where all this money ended up. Fifa, however, controlled after Havelange's retirement by his former lieutenant Sepp Blatter, saw no reason to reprimand its former president.
But in July 2012 Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira, his former son-in-law and president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, were named in a Swiss prosecutor's report as having taken more than $41m in bribes from ISL in connection with the awarding of World Cup marketing rights. Fifa was found to have known about the bribes, yet Sepp Blatter argued that the money did not need to be repaid as at the time the payments were made commercial, bribery was not a crime in Switzerland. A previous prosecution of the two men for embezzlement had been stopped in May 2010 after Havelange paid 500,000 Swiss Francs to the liquidators of ISL.
Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange was born in Rio de Janeiro on May 8 1916. His father, a Belgian mining engineer, had emigrated to Latin America in search of work; he had intended to travel to the United States aboard the Titanic, but arrived at Southampton after she had sailed.
The young Joao grew up in comfortable circumstances in which his mother's piety was reinforced by his father's disciplinarian nature. His first language was French, and though he would later make much of how he had been influenced by Brazil's easy mixture of races, in fact the speaking of lowly Portuguese was frowned on by his parents.
As a boy in Brazil, he almost inevitably enjoyed football, but his father decided that he would stand more chance of making his mark as a swimmer, and appointed himself Joao's trainer. When his father suffered a fatal stroke in 1933, Joao promised him on his deathbed that he would compete in the Olympics, and three years later made good his vow by travelling to Berlin as Brazilian and South American middle-distance champion. For almost 10 years, he went undefeated in Latin America.
The journey by boat to Germany lasted three weeks, however, and as there was no swimming pool aboard, Havelange arrived out of condition - at least, that was how he later explained his moderate performance in the races. The Nazi propaganda with which the Games were suffused made little impression on him: 60 years on, what he remembered above all was the efficiency with which such a vast spectacle had been organised.
On his return to Rio, Havelange qualified as a lawyer and soon found his way on to the board of one of the country's huge interstate bus companies. He always claimed afterwards that it was this business which made him independently wealthy, but there were stories that his real wealth came from arms dealing. He began to climb the ladder of Brazil's sporting administration as director (from 1949 to 1951) of Sao Paulo's swimming federation.
He remained fit enough in his mid-30s to play in the Brazilian water polo team which finished runner-up in the South American championship in 1951, and the following year he went with it to his second Olympics, in Helsinki.
Four years later Havelange was chef de mission of the Brazilian delegation at the Melbourne Games, and in 1958 became president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation, which had responsibility for 23 activities, including football.
Happily for Havelange, who also became a member of the IOC in 1963, his assumption of office coincided with the flowering of a generation of exceptionally talented footballers in Brazil, most obviously Pele; and as the national side went on to win the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970, Havelange's standing was strengthened commensurately.
He astutely took much of the credit for the team's success, and kept in with the military regime that controlled the country for much of the time, and which depended in part for popular support on the national side giving Brazilians something to cheer about.
Havelange was also on cordial terms with the junta in Argentina, which was allowed to benefit from hosting the 1978 World Cup.
Havelange, who remained active into old age, was noted for his outward self-control and his ability to charm. Certainly Tony Blair appeared to believe Havelange's blandishments when the president of Fifa told him he had his backing for England's ultimately unsuccessful bid to host the 2006 World Cup; Havelange had given the same assurance to Germany and South Africa.
None the less, when obstructed, he could become overbearing and vindictive.
In the 1990s, by which time Pele was Brazil's Minister of Sport, the two men fell out to such an extent that the latter found himself banned from the 1998 World Cup draw. The origins of their disagreement lay in Pele's attempts to clean up the administration of football in Brazil.
In June 2011, it was announced that an IOC ethics committee was to investigate allegations that Havelange had received a bribe of $1m.
Before it could begin its work, however, Havelange resigned as a member of the IOC, citing ill health, and the investigation was closed.
Joao Havelange received numerous Brazilian and foreign honours and decorations. A stadium named after him opened in Rio de Janeiro in 2007.
In 1946, Havelange married Anna Maria Hermanny, with whom he had a daughter.