The Legacy of João Havelange

Word trickled out of Brazil this morning that Joao Havelange, the 100-year-old Brazilian who ruled FIFA as his personal fiefdom from 1974–1999, has died. Tributes were quick to pour in from icons of Brazilian football, other national federations, and leaders of similar bodies like the IOC, which called for Brazilian flags to be flown at half-mast at the ongoing Rio 2016 Olympics. His death represents a good opportunity to reflect on the man’s legacy for FIFA and international sports.

That legacy is admittedly complicated. Running against English FIFA President Stanley Rous in 1974, Havelange mobilized the discontent of the global south against Rous’s Eurocentrism (and his admittedly noxious support for Apartheid South Africa) to sweep to power, promising an expanded World Cup and greater tournament rotation to incorporate Africa, Asia, and South America. In a 1998 profile of Havelange’s leadership of FIFA, the New York Times gave a glowing review of the man’s legacy:

[Havelange] ran FIFA, as the world soccer federation is known, with a combination of autocratic rigidity and progressive reform. In 24 years as FIFA’s president, Havelange was credited with building the Zurich-based organization from a fledgling operation in a private residence to a worldwide force that oversees a $250 billion-a-year international industry. With Blatter working by his side for 17 years and implementing his programs as FIFA’s general secretary, Havelange increased the size of the World Cup from 16 to 32 teams, introduced a World Cup for women, gained a place for women’s soccer in the Summer Olympics and built up marketing and television rights fees to the point that each of FIFA’s 204 national federations will receive $1 million from the 1998 World Cup.

To many, Havelange was critical in the globalization of the game, and its evolution beyond the traditional centres of power in Europe and the Southern Cone.

However, more than anyone else, Joao Havelange was the architect of the byzantine system of patronage, graft, and kickbacks that is the hallmark of the modern FIFA. While Havelange transformed FIFA into a truly global brand — with truly global revenues — that revenue stream became a mechanism for retaining power: FIFA development funds functioned as a mechanism for vote-buying, with control of the organizations purse-strings enabling Havelange to fight off any challenge to his presidency. Havelange also used FIFA’s enormous marketing revenue to dole out favourable contracts to political allies, friends, and family: ISL, a sports marketing company that received lucrative Olympics and World Cup contracts in the 1980s and 1990s, was run by close allies of Havelange. In return, those companies often paid inflated ‘personal commissions’ to sports officials and FIFA Executives — particularly Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira, the longtime President of the Brazilian FA and Havelange’s son-in-law. In his capacity as a member of the IOC, Havelange accepted diamonds, bicycles, sports articles, blue porcelain, and artwork from individuals associated with Amsterdam’s failed bid for the 1992 Summer Olympics. In 2011, British journalist Andrew Jennings testified to the Brazilian Senate that Havelange had accepted over $50 million in bribes as President of FIFA. In 2013, Havelange was stripped of his honorary FIFA Presidency over bribes taken in relation to ISL’s eventual bankruptcy.

Havelange’s protégé, Sepp Blatter, took this system of corruption a step further. Much of the Rogues’ Gallery of regional executives and national football leaders to have faced indictment, extradition, and prosecution in the US over the last year — Jack Warner, Nicolaz Leoz, Jeffrey Web, Jose Maria Marin, Ricardo Teixeira — began their FIFA life in Havelange’s network of patronage and corruption. All benefited from that system that has now begun to be pulled apart by Loretta Lynch and the US Department of Justice.

An estimated 4,000 construction workers — mostly migrants from South Asia — will die working on the 2022 World Cup

But while it’s very easy to mock the buffoonery of Jack Warner or Sepp Blatter’s delusions of grandeur, none of that should obscure the lasting, real consequences of Havelange’s system of corruption within FIFA: billions of dollars in development funds, meant for either local football or development, were instead siphoned into the pockets of corrupt national executives (this problem manifested itself at all levels of national development — the USA’s Chuck Blazer was one of the most egregious culprits); authoritarian regimes used either the prestige of national football teams or the nationalistic fervor of hosting a World Cup to solidify claims of legitimacy amidst state-sanctioned murder and persecution (the 1978 World Cup in Jorge Videla’s Argentina is the most glaring case). The system of bribery that Havelange pioneered played a crucial role in delivering the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar; the latter will lead to the deaths of an estimated 4,000 migrant workers by the time stadium construction is complete. These are not accidental bugs of an otherwise pristine international sporting organization. Rather, they are features and inevitable outcomes of a broken, rotting system that Havelange created.

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