Joao Havelange: A “Tribute”

by | Aug 18, 2016

There are three perspectives on the death of Joao Havelange in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday, aged 100. Havelange’s family and loved ones are currently grieving his loss, which no-one has the right to disrespect that grief or question. And I’m certainly not about to. But when Sepp Blatter and the repugnant Jack Warner pay you your two kindest tributes, that’s another matter. And when highly-respected investigative journalist Andrew Jennings tweets that Havelange “was a gangster, urbane but still a gangster,” that’s another matter again. Because if the bad guys love you and the good guys hate you, what are you?

Havelange’s major legacy is the worst of modern football. The rampant commercialism, the ultimate consequence of which is being played out in courts after the United States Department of Justice indictments of leading Fifa officials for bribery and corruption. The bloated World Cup finals, with matches often played in unsuitable venues at unsuitable hours, the product of politics, patronage, bribery and corruption rather than any desire to discover the world’s best footballing nation or to expand football’s horizons…or whatever the bullshit justification was for Qatar hosting the 2022 tournament

Havelange hugely benefitted from personal bribery and corruption. As Gary Lineker (!) tweeted: “Football gave him so much.” Havelange was also a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1963 until 2011, which was just before ethics bodies could pass judgement on bribery and corruption charges. Havelange resigned his honorary Fifa presidency in 2013 in startlingly similar circumstances. Fifa’s Havelange obituary predictably skimped on this. Current president Gianni Infantino, under ethics investigation within months of his election, said “football became truly global” under Havelange’s presidency, from 1974 to 1998, “reaching new territories and bringing the game to all corners of the world. Something the whole football community should be grateful for.” But read that carefully. “Football” is the subject of that sentence, not Havelange. Even official Fifa communications fell short of hagiography, well aware that said global expansion was facilitated by…bribery and corruption.

Even Havelange’s sporting prowess was tainted. Much is made of his participation at the 1936 Olympics, in the 400m and 1500m freestyle swimming events. Less is made of his admiration for those games. You know the ones. Berlin. The Nazi Olympics. “The organisation. The attention to detail. The efficiency,” Havelange noted in 1998, no German stereotype exempted. “The Berlin games was one of the most excellent spectacles I have seen,” he added. “Everyone seemed happy.” Under Nazi rule in 1936? “Of course the young people of my time….didn’t engage in politics,” Havelange explained. Right-o.

Havelange’s “ability” to separate sport from politics permeated his rise through sports administrative ranks. Despite the military dictatorships in Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and Havelange’s close links with many of the, ahem, personalities involved, he claimed the military “took their part in Brazilian life” while football “took another part. They had their job to do. I had mine.” This “alternative” view of Havelange is detailed in David Yallop’s book How They Stole the Game. The above quotes are from Yallop’s extensive interviews with Havelange in 1998. It is an excellent account of “how fantasy has been woven into the man’s history in many places, often by the man himself” in which Yallop acknowledges Havelange’s “almost fanatical desire to succeed” but repeatedly encounters the selectivity of his memory.

“If Trivial Pursuit ever becomes an Olympic event, my money is on Havelange,” Yallop noted of his ability to detail “every living, waking minute” of his presidency. Well, “perhaps not every minute,” Yallop cautions, “there are hours, days, weeks that Havelange prefers to draw a veil over.” Naturally. Havelange’s legacy personified is, after all, Blatter. When he called Havelange his “teacher” Blatter was, unusually, not lying. “That is why I managed Fifa in the same spirit,” he added, like that was a good thing.

Havelange gained administrative experience in Sao Paulo’s transport industry in the 1940s. He began his sports administration career as a senior member of Brazil’s 1956 Melbourne Olympic delegation and became Brazilian sports federation vice-president that year, assuming the presidency in 1958, at just the right time. As Havelange told it, Brazil won the World Cups of 1958 and 1962 thanks to his influence, although more sustainable credit went to Brazilian delegation chief Paulo Machado de Carvalho. Havelange was quieter about 1966, when Brazil were eliminated early, despite it being the one tournament he attended.

1966 is not remembered fondly by South American football followers. Allegations of a “European plot” against the continent were largely round objects. But they fuelled a South America desire to wrest the Fifa presidency from Europe for the first time ever. Brazil regained the World Cup, memorably, stylishly, on colour telly in 1970. And Havelange thus positioned himself as the obvious South American presidential candidate. In 1971, he said he had “no ambition to become president.” So…the campaign was on.

He wrote the campaign template which has so besmirched Fifa politics since, energetically lobbying the footballing world’s “have-nots”, i.e. most of it, persuading them that they would “have” under his presidency and guaranteeing lucrative places at expanded World Cup Finals for Africa and Oceania. And at election time, immediately prior to the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany, Havelange arranged flights for supportive delegates from the far-flung corners of the world, many attending their first-ever Fifa Congress.

Incumbent president Sir Stanley Rous, a vastly-experienced football administrator, was by 1974 a complacent relic, partly-reliant on support from British ex-colonies, many of whose votes Havelange had successfully…well…bought. That Havelange left Brazil’s sports federation with a $1.7m hole in its accounts and made multi-million-dollars from his presidency left his Fifa electoral credibility untarnished. Rous lost. The old school closed. And football hurtled towards rampant commercialism. Havelange’s claims that he found Fifa with “$20 in the kitty” were untrue. The 1974 World Cup Finals made a $19m profit, which, yes, was a lot of money in those days. But Fifa, still nominally a “non-profit” organisation, undoubtedly ratcheted up the commercial pressure under Havelange. With expensive electoral promises to keep, he had to. Havelange was an autocrat, blatantly buying off opposition. Fifa committee members were to be paid for the first time. They could certainly now afford their own rubber-stamps, the key utensil for Havelange committee members.

He also relished the company of other autocrats. If there was a vote or money to be had, Havelange would shake whatever hand held it. “His” first World Cup was in 1978 in an Argentina under military rule. Doubtless Argentina’s military, like Brazil’s, “had their job to do.” But, as Keir Radnedge noted in his terrific Havelange obit: “Even FIFA’s official centenary history” was “highly-critical…of his dealings” with them. Twenty-four teams participated in a logistical nightmare of a World Cup in Spain in 1982. In 1986, games in Mexico kicked-off to suit television, not the players. The choice of Mexico as host was shrouded in corruption allegations concerning Mexican TV station Televisa’s close links to Havelange. And 1998’s 32-team tournament fulfilled one of the only election promises he’d ever had to make, having been re-elected unopposed after 1974.

By 1994, Havelange was under increasing pressure to retire after a series of “oooh, he’s gone too far this time” incidents, most notably his snubbing of Pele at the 1994 World Cup draw in the USA. Pele was the most-recognisable football player to Americans after finishing his career there in the 1970s. Havelange had basked in the reflected glory of three Pele-inspired World Cup triumphs. And Pele was still regarded as the greatest player ever. But this was overshadowed by Pele’s disputes with Brazil’s football chief, Ricardo Teixeira, son-in-law to…Havelange. Teixeira was as corrupt as f**k. But family loyalties trumped even Pele. The watching world was confused. Havelange didn’t care.

Despite tentative undercover plotting against Havelange, Blatter was his “chosen one.” And we now know how natural a succession that was, as Fifa scandals past and present continue to emerge. Most damning of these involved sports marketeers International Sports and Leisure (ISL), which had a very close relationship with Fifa. It went bust in 2001. And consequential criminal investigations revealed the extent to which they cemented that close relationship with bribes. An infamous 1.5m Swiss Francs (CHF) arrived at Fifa HQ in error, before Blatter transferred it, no questions asked, to “rightful” owner…Havelange (Andrew Jennings’ Foul has ball-by-ball commentary on that). And ISL paid CHF41m in bribes to Havelange and Teixeira, according to Swiss prosecutors. Fifa managed to settle matters privately, Havelange returned CHF500,000 to ISL’s liquidators.

In April 2013, Fifa’s Ethics Committee chairman Hans-Joachim Eckert reported: “From money that passed through (ISL), it is certain that not inconsiderable amounts were channelled to (Havelange and Teixeira)…whereby there is no indication that any form of service was given in return. These payments…are to be qualified as ‘commissions,’ today known as ‘bribes.’” Eckert said: “Havelange and Teixeira, as football officials, should not have accepted any bribe money.” And added that “it must be questioned whether (Blatter) knew or should have known before the bankruptcy of ISL (Eckert’s emphasis) that ISL had made payments (bribes) to other Fifa officials.” Little wonder Blatter said this week: “It is not the time now to speak about the problems he has faced.”

Blatter’s and Warner’s tributes clumsily exposed Havelange’s true legacy. Blatter calling him his “teacher” condemned him utterly. And Warner repeated the lie that football was “virtually bankrupt” when Havelange “ascended the football throne” (imagery to cheer the power-mad Havelange).  Worse, Warner claimed Havelange “saved” football “from ignominy”…which Warner’s own Fifa career disproves. Worse still: “His greatest contribution to Caribbean football is the gift of the Centre of Excellence…to the Warner family which ironically, is now a point of contention in our courts.”

Havelange’s “gift” of a nation’s centre of football excellence to one family (NOT “Caribbean football”) was simply corrupt. Whatever irony means, this being “a point of contention in our courts” isn’t it. And Warner concluded: “What he has achieved has left…no suspicion among those he touched and no misgiving among those who benefited from his stewardship.” Why indeed would you have suspicions and misgivings when you have “benefited” like the Warners?

It is tempting to group Havelange, Blatter and Warner as three-of-a-corrupt-kind. But Blatter and Warner were just men of greed. Havelange had more, as a genuine athlete and organiser. Unlike Blatter and Warner, he could have been a legitimate success. But he chose corruption. As Brazil’s sports chief, he applied his considerable talents at least as much to the good of Havelange as the good of the game. Egomania trumped ethics. Venality trumped veracity. Havelange will rest in peace. People without consciences do. But he died in merited public disgrace. Because if the bad guys love you and the good guys hate you, what are you?

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