João Havelange, a Brazilian businessman and former Olympic athlete, was one of the most influential figures in sports from the 1970s through the 1990s as president of FIFA, the international governing body of soccer.
Ruling over his empire like a monarch, he introduced lucrative sponsorship and broadcasting deals that made soccer a global industry and brought immense wealth to FIFA and to the president’s inner circle.
By the time Mr. Havelange’s reign as FIFA president ended in 1998, soccer was unrivaled in its international popularity, and the quadrennial World Cup was eagerly followed on television by billions of spectators.
Despite such successes, Mr. Havelange was considered the architect of a climate of high-level corruption that tainted soccer for decades and eventually forced his successor and protege, Sepp Blatter, from power.
Mr. Havelange, who was 100, died Aug. 16 in Rio de Janeiro, the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics. He was a high-ranking International Olympic Committee official and played an instrumental role in securing the Games for his home town. The hospital where he died announced his death. The Associated Press reported that he had been treated for pneumonia.
FIFA, which stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association, was established in 1904 in Paris and is the international governing body for soccer. As the sport grew in popularity around the world, Mr. Havelange became a key sports administrator in Brazil, where he helped guide the development of the country’s national team. Led by Pelé, often considered soccer’s greatest player, Brazil won three World Cup titles between 1958 and 1970.
Mr. Havelange parlayed his success in Brazil into an international campaign for the presidency of FIFA, previously a closed club controlled by the sport’s European powers. He visited 86 countries, often with Pelé at his side, developing a power base among soccer federations in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and unseated Sir Stanley Rous of England as FIFA’s president in 1974.
At the time, there were only seven employees at the federation’s headquarters in Zurich, and the World Cup brought in a total of $10 million every four years. Mr. Havelange greatly expanded the staff and scope of FIFA during his 24 years in office, the second-longest tenure of any FIFA president, after Frenchman Jules Rimet, who led the body from 1921 to 1954.
As FIFA’s first non-European president, Mr. Havelange followed through on his pledge to expand soccer around the world. Recognizing that his sport could not thrive without broad-based social gains, he worked with UNICEF and other groups to improve education and nutrition in developing countries.
Soccer began to flourish in once-marginalized parts of Africa and Asia and even in the United States, where it had long been viewed as a secondary sport. Mr. Havelange expanded the World Cup field from 16 teams to 24 and finally, in 1998, to 32.
He launched the Youth World Cup for younger players in 1977 and the Women’s World Cup in 1991. He shrewdly brought the men’s World Cup to the United States in 1994, helping spur the sport’s growth among younger players and fans.
Mr. Havelange traveled around the world like a potentate on private jets and in limousines, surrounded by an entourage. He was known to refuse to see male visitors to his office if they were not wearing neckties.
Fluent in Portuguese, French and Spanish, he spoke English in private but never in public, which contributed to his mystique of unassailable strength. He rarely consented to interviews in any language.
One of the clearest signs of Mr. Havelange’s worldwide reach was that, under his reign, FIFA grew to include more member countries than the United Nations.
“Without a doubt, he’s the most powerful man in sports,” Hank Steinbrecher, secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation, told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. “Havelange is accorded more diplomatic entree than any head of state.”
Soon after taking office, Mr. Havelange began to establish sponsorship deals with deep-pocketed multinational corporations, most notably Coca-Cola and Adidas, the German-based manufacturer of athletic shoes and clothing. The commercial underwriting provided a steady stream of income and was soon copied by the Olympic Games and other major sporting events.
Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Havelange consolidated World Cup TV coverage, giving FIFA sole broadcasting rights.
“When I went to FIFA in 1974,” Mr. Havelange said in 2004, “I found an old house and $20 in the kitty. On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion.”
During Mr. Havelange’s FIFA presidency, the organization prospered through a cozy arrangement with a marketing company originally called International Sports and Leisure, or ISL. For years, ISL also handled marketing for the Olympic Games, largely through the presence of Mr. Havelange, who joined the IOC in 1963.
He reportedly maneuvered behind the scenes to have Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch elected president of the IOC in 1980. Mr. Havelange was also instrumental in promoting the selection of Barcelona as the host city of the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Between FIFA and the IOC, Mr. Havelange held a preeminent place among power brokers in international sports. His authority was not questioned until 1992, when a Dutch newspaper charged that he solicited bribes from cities seeking to host the Olympic Games.
A year later, a company associated with Pelé failed to win a contract to broadcast soccer games in Brazil. The TV rights went instead to a company controlled by Ricardo Teixeira, who was president of the Brazilian soccer federation and at the time was Mr. Havelange’s son-in-law.
Pelé went public with charges of corruption. Teixeira sued for defamation, and Pelé filed suit in return.
At a promotional event in Las Vegas in December 1993, publicizing the upcoming U.S. World Cup, Mr. Havelange ordered Pelé to be removed from the premises in what became known in the soccer world as “the snub.”
By turning against the world’s best-known soccer player — and someone who helped him win the FIFA presidency — Mr. Havelange was seen as a vengeful autocrat. Pelé called him a “dictator,” and the two did not speak again for years.
Reelected five times as FIFA president, Mr. Havelange announced that he would retire at the end of his sixth term, in 1998. After engineering the election of his chief deputy, Joseph S. “Sepp” Blatter, a Swiss-born economist who joined FIFA’s administration in the 1970s, Mr. Havelange became the organization’s “honorary president.”
As rumors of bribery began to swirl around Blatter and other FIFA officials, investigators traced the pattern of fraud and malfeasance back to an insular, entitled corporate culture that became ingrained during Mr. Havelange’s presidency.
In 2001, ISL, the marketing giant that had helped propel FIFA’s commercial expansion, collapsed in financial ruin. Amid the fallout, it was learned that Mr. Havelange and his associates had profited for years through bribery. Yet he never faced prosecution because, during his years as president, corporate bribery was not a crime in Switzerland, where FIFA was based.
Andrew Jennings, a British investigative reporter who wrote several books about soccer corruption, estimated that Mr. Havelange may have pocketed more than $50 million in covert payments through the years, often funneled through shadow businesses.
In 2011, when an ethics commission was about to sanction Mr. Havelange for allegedly accepting Olympic bribes worth more than $1 million, he was forced to resign from the IOC after 48 years.
In December 2015, a letter from Mr. Havelange was made public in which he implicated Blatter in a scandal that had been brewing since at least the 1990s, when FIFA officials were collecting huge bribes from ISL, the marketing firm.
Blatter, he wrote, “had full knowledge of all activities . . . and was always apprised of them.”
Swiss officials launched criminal proceedings against Blatter, and in 2015 dozens of top FIFA officials were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the scandal was the result of “decades of systemic corruption,” with bribes and kickbacks totaling more than $200 million.
“The betrayal of trust is outrageous,” Lynch said. “The scale of corruption is unconscionable.”
Among the recommendations for reform was one related directly to Mr. Havelange’s long tenure — that presidents be limited to no more than 12 years in office.
Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange was born May 8, 1916, in Rio to Belgian-born parents. His father was a wealthy engineer and businessman who, among other things, was a gun dealer.
The powerfully built Mr. Havelange excelled in several sports as a young man, including soccer and boxing. He competed as a swimmer for Brazil at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and then was a member of Brazil’s water polo team at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. He did not win a medal.
He graduated from the law school of Rio’s Fluminense Federal University in 1940 and worked as a legal adviser for a bus company before becoming an insurance broker and an executive with an industrial conglomerate. He was still the titular head of Brazil’s leading bus company long after he became FIFA president.
In the 1950s, Mr. Havelange capitalized on his background as an Olympic athlete to become president of Brazil’s national sports federation. A skilled organizer, he was among the first to introduce the use of psychologists in sports, seeking to give the Brazilian soccer team an edge in confidence in international competition.
He married Anna Maria Hermanny in 1946. They had one daughter, Lucia Havelange Teixeira, and several grandchildren. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.
In 1994, when Mr. Havelange brought the World Cup to the United States, U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg said, “All is attributable to his leadership.”
There is no question that Mr. Havelange made soccer — the “beautiful game” — a billion-dollar industry played by millions of people around the world, and enjoyed by even more. But as it thrived on the pitch, even its most ardent fans could not fail to look behind the scenes at the ugly side of the beautiful game.
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