Time Finally Up for FIFA’s Havelange

If it seems that Joao Havelange has been in power forever, he has been.

Richard Nixon was still in the White House, the Bee Gees--quel horreur!--were still in the top 20 and Shaquille O’Neal was still in diapers--extra-large, no doubt--when the Brazilian was elected president of FIFA.

The year was 1974, and at the 39th FIFA Congress in Frankfurt, a couple of days before the Germany ’74 World Cup began, Jean Marie Faustin Godefroid Havelange won the vote.


Easy to see why he goes by Joao, though, isn’t it?

Almost a quarter-century later, Havelange’s era is nearly over. At 82, he can count his remaining time in office not in days, but hours.

On Monday, representatives of FIFA’s 198 member nations gathered here for the latest FIFA Congress will bid the imperious Brazilian adieu. There will be sincere thanks for all he has done, but also a large measure of relief.

Time has passed Havelange by, and FIFA needs a younger leader, one with new vision and new ideas. One not so wrapped up in his own accomplishments-- longevity seems to be Havelange’s main one, unkind critics would say--that he can articulate a future for the planet’s most widely played and widely followed sport.

Unfortunately, the leader FIFA will elect will be younger only in comparison to Havelange, whose age is perhaps more easily understood when you know that he competed for Brazil as a swimmer in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

He did accomplish much during his presidency. For one thing, the sport--and the World Cup in particular--has grown beyond all recognition in the past quarter-century.

When Havelange, who was born in Rio de Janeiro of Belgian parents in 1916, succeeded England’s Sir Stanley Rous as FIFA president on June 11, 1974, the World Cup field consisted of 16 teams.

By 1982, the number had been increased to 24, with countries from Africa, Asia and North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF) being the main beneficiaries of the additional berths. When the France 98 World Cup begins Wednesday, 32 teams will be competing, and again the developing soccer world has been helped the most.

Critics have derided Havelange for “watering down” the field by increasing its size and for trading World Cup places for votes in order to cling to power.

If that is true, then at least one of his would-be successors already is doing much the same thing. Joseph “Sepp” Blatter of Switzerland, FIFA’s general secretary for the last 17 years and Havelange’s right-hand man, is quite shameless about it.

“I will not give you all my programs for Africa,” Blatter told his audience during a campaign swing through Monrovia, Liberia, on Wednesday, “but what I can promise, which will be a reality, is that if I am elected president of FIFA, I will give the 2006 World Cup to Africa.”

Oh, really?

Did democracy just die in Zurich as well as Rio?

What about England and Germany, which both have launched expensive campaigns to stage the 2006 event? What about Argentina, Brazil and perhaps even Australia, which are contemplating applying?

The World Cup is not awarded on the basis of one man’s decree, it is a vote taken by FIFA’s executive leadership. Already, Blatter, 62, is beginning to sound just as autocratic as Havelange. A troubling sign.

The Swiss gnome has been trying for weeks to woo African voters. In early May in a speech in Johannesburg, he promised huge financial investment in the sport’s infrastructure on the continent, especially in the black townships of South Africa, the country where the 2006 World Cup would probably be played if Blatter gets his way.

Earlier, he sounded like any cheap politician in trying to promise all things to all constituencies, knowing full well that such promises are empty.

“Of the 200 million licensed players in the world, 40 million are women,” Blatter claimed. “A woman must be on the executive committee.”

An acceptable stance, certainly, but again, not one that Blatter alone can dictate.

It has been that sort of attitude that has narrowed the circle of Havelange admirers by a considerable degree over the past 24 years. The more his power was consolidated, the more aloof and dictatorial he became. It was his way or no way.

Lennart Johansson, the 66-year-old Swede who is Blatter’s only rival in Monday’s presidential election, attacked this point time and again.

“He commands FIFA like a dictator,” Johansson said of Havelange in March. “He was the right man at the right time and in the right place. He has done a lot for the football world, but times have changed.

“His behavior today is unacceptable. At the end of his career, he should show stature rather than endangering a life’s work.”

That life’s work includes the launch of no fewer than four world championships to go alongside the 68-year-old World Cup. During Havelange’s tenure in office, FIFA inaugurated the Under-17 World Championship, the FIFA World Youth Championship (for players under 20), the FIFA Women’s World Championship and the FIFA Indoor World Championship. In addition, it launched the Confederations’ Cup, played between continental champions. The next edition, with the United States taking part, will be played in Mexico in January. There also are plans to launch a FIFA World Club Championship in 1999.

“I did not become president of FIFA just to watch good football and applaud,” Havelange was quoted as saying in the April issue of FIFA magazine.

The issue, understandably subjective since it is a FIFA publication, devoted a dozen pages to documenting Havelange’s presidency. Historians will find the 17 accompanying photographs more revealing than the text.

Here’s young Joao (pronounced Zhow, rhymes with cow) at age 18, dripping wet on the starting blocks at a swimming pool, his one-piece, over-the-shoulder swimsuit and beanie-like swimming cap proof of the photo’s 1934 vintage. No Speedos for Joao.

Here he is again, posing in his Olympic-rings sweater by the ship’s rail on his way to compete in the Berlin Games.

Turn a page or two and Havelange is seen with King Juan Carlos of Spain at the 1982 World Cup; with Ecuadorean artist Pablo Guayasamin having his portrait painted; with Pope John Paul II, one of three private audiences he has had; in front of a few of the vehicles in the bus fleet he owns in Brazil; piloting a speedboat; playing soccer (there’s no mistaking his legs for Ronaldo’s); and in a pose that best reflects him, up close, staring his listener in the eye, with an arm raised and index finger extended, scolding perhaps, or laying down the law.

It’s lawyer Havelange’s way or no way.

In the world of sports, there are rarefied circles in which the oldest, most battle-scarred vultures fly. Joao Havelange, an International Olympic Committee member since 1963, moves in sync with Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president. Small wonder, then, that Spain got both the World Cup in 1982 and the Barcelona Olympics 10 years later.

A non-drinker and non-smoker, Havelange has always been a non-English speaker too, to the frustration of many. For 24 years, his speeches to the world’s press have been in his native Portuguese, in Spanish or in French. He understands English well, he simply chooses not to speak it.

Henry Kissinger once said of Havelange, “He always sees the world through a telescope and not through a microscope,” a comment intended to praise Havelange’s vision.

That vision had more to do with marketing and money than the actual sport itself. It is revealing to see the answer Havelange gave FIFA magazine when asked his greatest accomplishment as president.

“Being able to hold my head high and say that I have left FIFA with $100 million in property and $4 billion in cash coming in over the next 10 years,” he replied.

Monday’s election remains a close race between Blatter and Johansson, who has been president of UEFA--European soccer’s governing body--and a FIFA vice president for the last eight years.

A two-thirds majority, 132 votes, is needed for election on the first ballot. After that, a simply majority is all that is required.

Blatter has the support of CONCACAF, of which Alan Rothenberg, U.S. Soccer’s lame-duck president, is now a vice president. If they have played their cards right and Blatter wins, the World Cup could be coming back to the United States by 2010. And almost certainly by 2014.

Havelange, meanwhile, will head home to Brazil after France ’98. His era is almost at an end.