Happy Hundredth Havelange

Happy Hundredth Havelange

João Havelange’s 100th birthday passed with barely a comment a few weeks ago. He reached this milestone on May 8th 2016, but there were to be no tributes from the football world for the man who established the basis of a modern FIFA that the previous May the US Department of Justice, announcing its first round of indictments, had condemned as an endemically corrupt “enterprise” – echoing the analysis in my book, written with John Sugden, "Badfellas: FIFA Family at War" (2002), soon to be reissued as "Football, Corruption and Lies: Re-visiting 'Badfellas', the book FIFA tried to ban" (Routledge, 2016).

Havelange slipped in to the FIFA presidency in 1974, when the World Cup and FIFA weren’t such front-page news, when FIFA presidents had a lower profile and English fans or the wider public weren’t particularly bothered about who was up to what in the modest FIFA HQ in Zurich. After all, England had won a World Cup just 8 years before, didn’t do too badly in the Mexican heat of 1970 (though Bobby Charlton found it too much and didn’t last the pace for the traumatic defeat to West Germany, and the team was handicapped by goalkeeper Gordon Banks’s absence with a stomach bug). And England didn’t get to West Germany for the 1974 World Cup, thwarted by Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, branded a “clown” by Brian Clough in an accumulating narrative of English hard-luck stories. Whatever the reason, England wasn’t there and in the FIFApolitic of the time another English defeat – veteran English football administrator Sir Stanley Rous losing the presidential election to Havelange – passed almost unnoticed by an indifferent general public.

The ‘74 World Cup saw perimeter advertising adorn the coverage for the first time, chiming with Havelange’s bold expansive manifesto, in which he’d targeted, lobbied for – and in some cases certainly bought – the votes of the poorer football nations of Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific. The smooth, confident and cavalier Brazilian symbolized a pivotal moment in the emergence of a global political economy of sport, taking the FIFA position at a World Cup that represented the eve of the goldrush in the fusion of sporting, media and marketing interests. It was a time of dramatic institutional and cultural change in the world game – out with the old and in with a new, expanding and commercialising model of football development for an international market. Few journalists and even fewer professional researchers noted this at the time, giving the Frankfurt FIFA Congress where Rous was unseated little more than a cursory nod. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”, wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, and their words could have been written as an elegy for a passing age as football entered a period of transformation.

This power switch was for the most part unseen or ignored by the British sporting establishment. As England’s world footballing profile – though not European success rate at club level – declined, Havelange and his protégé Sepp Blatter were redrawing the contours of what would become their fiefdom, rescaling the reach of a FIFA across the expanding global football business. Havelange seized the day and made the future, but took backhanders and bogus bonuses as he raided the FIFA coffers and silenced opponents in an autocratic period of power spanning five uncontested re-elections before handing the reins of power to his henchman Blatter, backing the latter when the Swiss won the presidency in 1998.

If he were a UK citizen, Havelange might have been the recipient of a congratulatory telegram from the youngster Queen Elizabeth, a little after after her own nonagenarian celebration party. But even in his home country Brazil there won’t have been many partygoers gathering round the old man’s bedside. His legacy, ultimately, is the shattered image of a provenly corrupt FIFA, a flawed leadership model that has spawned a generation of crooks, cheats and charlatans riding the gravy train of FIFA-based and FIFA-connected activities and events. When Havelange took over at FIFA it was boomtime and he and his erstwhile son-in-law Ricardo Texeira could personally pocket vast sums for personal fortunes, $41 million for instance from the media rights to the 2002 and 2006 men’s World Cups. Havelange thought that in his sprightly early 80s he’d be heading towards a dignified old age, feted and respected and in some cases still feared; a lifetime of achievement recognised in honours and positions at FIFA and the IOC (he was the longest-serving member of the IOC having been elected before the introduction of age limits for members). But, disgraced in revelation after revelation, way before the US indictments, he’d had to resign from these positions. Charismatic and confident when he won the presidency at the age of 58, he’ll have been blowing out his candles in Brazil a shamed and disgraced figure. Happy birthday Dr Havelange; your main achievement in a long career may well have been to be able to celebrate your century at liberty, rather than in the even more isolated confinement of a prison cell.  

Alan Tomlinson

June 2nd 2016