A Cup That Holds a World of Change
Wednesday, June 3, 1998
Soccer fans cherish tradition. Around the world, you can find clubs playing in the same stadiums they played in a century ago, in the same uniforms, before fans singing the same songs and chanting the same chants. And on the field of play, it's still pretty much the same game. There are no three-point plays or "designated shooters." It is still 11-on-11, and you still can't use your hands, and Brazil is still the best there is.
But look closer. As the last World Cup of the century kicks off, soccer is radically different from what it was just a few years ago. And by the time we kick off the first World Cup of the new century, there will be even more changes.
It used to be that you owned a piece of your team symbolically, by joining its club or simply by declaring your allegiance. Now you can buy shares of the team on the stock market.
It used to be that you saw your team play by walking down to its park and buying a ticket. Now you scour the TV listings to discover which networks is broadcasting the game from your team's futuristic new arena, which you can't get into because all the seats are sold out, and anyway, you wouldn't want to pay the operatic price.
It used to be that you knew your team's best players, and they knew you, because they worked with you at the local factory and took home a small bonus each week for playing the game. Now you have to check the program to see which millionaire superstar has just been bought and which has just been sold.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply the way of sports at the turn of the century, and if soccer was to survive and compete, it had to adapt. The changes can be credited to or blamed on one man who has altered the fundamental nature of soccer to a degree unseen in any other sport and paralleled only in the most innovative of modern industries.
There is Rupert Murdoch in mass media. There is Bill Gates in computing. And there is Joao Havelange in international soccer.
Havelange became president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 1974. The FIFA he inherited was a provincial organization, a collection of European soccer officials who met to update the rules and organize the World Cup. His election ended a 70-year monopoly of European rule, and he immediately set about making soccer the world's number one sport.
Under Havelange's leadership, FIFA became rich and powerful. A gold rush of modern corporate sports sponsorship was inspired under Havelange's leadership. He struck rich commercial deals and founded lucrative new tournaments for all age groups and both sexes. It was on his watch, for example, that the Women's World Cup was created, opening up big-time team sports to half the world's population.
Every World Cup over which he has presided has been more successful than the last. His bold decision to champion the U.S. bid for the 1994 tournament paid off with the biggest and richest World Cup ever. That decisionin turn sparked the creation of Major League Soccer in the United States. At a single stroke, America won entry into the world game and FIFA won entry into American boardrooms. Both have profited handsomely.
Havelange also made FIFA a force for political change in the Third World. In 1967, he orchestrated the expulsion of South Africa from world soccer and thereby put FIFA at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement. It is up to historians to determine precisely to what extent the South African triumph in the 1996 African Nations' Cup contributed to the smooth transition to majority rule, but no one disputes that it was considerable.
Havelange's Olympian will and global vision transformed FIFA into much more than a sports governing body. In his 24 years in charge, FIFA has become a significant political, social and economic player on the world stage, and Havelange has become, quite simply, one of the most powerful men in international sports.
That will end next month. At the age of 82, Havelange, a granite-jawed man of imposing bearing who was a swimmer at the 1936 Olympics and played water polo in the 1952 Games, is retiring.
Even though he is stepping aside, the transformation of soccer that he engineered will continue. His successor will preside over the first World Cup to be staged in Asia, where the potential of billions of soccer fans is only now beginning to be tapped. It is not out of the question that that World Cup will be won for the first time by a team from Africa, where Havelange's tireless advocacy has driven the emergence of the game. His retirement will surely end an era, but it will also inaugurate another era, and the possibilities are exciting.
It is appropriate, then, that Havelange's last World Cup will see the beginnings of a transition on the field. By the next World Cup, FIFA will have a new generation of leaders, and soccer fans will have a new generation of young players who will take the game in a new direction.
In four years, a generation of players who have thrilled fans with their skills and their staying power will have moved on. The roll call of stars who are most likely making their last stand in this World Cup is a long one: Jurgen Klinsmann, Gheorghe Hagi, Roberto Baggio, Dunga, Lothar Matthaus, Ivan Zamorano, Andoni Zubizaretta, Paolo Maldini, Hristo Stoichkov, Luc Nilis, Alberto Garcia Aspe, Paul Ince, Enzo Scifo, Carlos Valderrama.
In four years, we'll be talking in the same reverent tones of a raft of young players. Some have already arrived: Ronaldo, Alan Shearer, Ariel Ortega, Predrag Mijatovic, Patrick Kluivert, Raul, Nwankwo Kanu, Marcelo Salas, Alessandro Del Piero, Ivan de la Pena. And some will force their way to our attention: Hidetoshi Nakata, Denis Serban, Michael Owen, Dejan Stankovic, Marc-Vivien Foe, Eddie Pope, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Ko Jong Soo, Ivailo Petkov, Sami Al-Jaber, Benni McCarthy, Rigobert Song.
In four years, Germany probably will line up at the next World Cup with an entirely new starting 11. They will be equally as ornery and single-minded as the great teams of the past 40 years all decades in which a German team played in the championship game.
In four years, Argentina will be an even younger, more exciting team than the transitional squad that Daniel Passarella is taking to France. It will be scrubbed clean of all connection to Diego Maradona, who in both triumph and wretched excess personified the new soccer of the 1980s and 1990s.
In four years, South America will be much more than Argentina and Brazil. Chile and Paraguay are pushing them for prominence even now. By 2002, they will have made South America more balanced and more competitive, and all will be stronger for it.
In four years, an Asian team will survive into the second round. The United States will make the quarterfinals. And an African team will make the semifinals. No one will think any of this is especially surprising.
In four years, then, soccer will have a new face and a identity. It may well have a new champion, crashing the elite party of six nations that have won the World Cup. It will be richer, and faster, and more ubiquitous than ever on television.
All of this will come to fruition under a new leader, but it will be the legacy of Havelange.
Havelange has made his share of missteps, many of them, sadly, evolving from his protection of the comically corrupt Brazilian federation. He is a difficult, arrogant man, and it would be satisfying to write him off as a petty tyrant.
But as galling as it can be to acknowledge it, the record shows that the sport is infinitely healthier economically, structurally, politically and competitively than it was when he came on the scene. A tyrant he may have been, but there has been nothing petty about what his tyranny, or his accomplishments.
It is fitting, then, that Havelange's valedictory will be the biggest World Cup ever and potentially the most open and competitive one in many years. That it will be attended by the usual brouhahas over refereeing and drug tests, and that it may be disrupted by labor unrest, is also fitting. Turbulence and controversy are demanded as this leader steps aside.
Yes, soccer fans cherish tradition. As the game enters a new century, some of those traditions are falling away. But that merely leaves room for new traditions to sprout and flourish.
As for the game itself, well, it is still 11-on-11, and you still can't use your hands. And Brazil is still the best there is. For one more month, at least.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company