The Legacy of Former FIFA President João Havelange

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For better or worse, much of what makes soccer what it is today— from its unmatched popularity around the globe to its rapacious commercialization— can be attributed to former FIFA President João Havelange. Today, the retired lawyer, businessman, and Olympic athlete is dead at age 100.

Havelange was born in Rio in 1916, the son of wealthy Belgian immigrants. As a young adult had a successful career in law, graduating with an advanced degree from Fluminense Federal University and serving as a legal advisor to several companies in Brazil. He was also an accomplished swimmer, and managed to earn a place in the Brazilian delegation to the 1936 Summer Olympics.

As his law career progressed he became more and more involved in the sporting world. He became a member of the Brazilian Olympic Committee in 1958 and, soon after, was appointed President of the Brazilian Sports Confederation, a position he would hold until 1973.

When Havelange became President of FIFA in 1974 it was seen as almost revolutionary. FIFA had long been a primarily European nexus of power, and football authorities elsewhere in the world were expected to take their cues from their European betters. Havelange’s background notwithstanding, the idea that someone from outside Europe could lead FIFA, let alone someone from South America, was unheard of. But Havelange’s bid for the top job at FIFA came during his country’s emergence as a world power in football, dovetailing, not coincidentally, with hype surrounding Pelé reaching a fever pitch.

Havelange was able to parlay what he learned in Brazilian sport to build a coalition among football associations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. With outsider backing strong enough as to be impossible to ignore, Havelange managed to depose Englishman Sir Stanley Rous as President in 1974.

Over the next two years Havelange would remake world football into a powerful machine operation, expanding the size and scope of the organization while bringing in lucrative new revenue streams. He brokered new deals for broadcast rights and brought in massive sponsorship agreements, bringing football to a greater audience and ensuring fresh new eyeballs for his corporate partners.

By the time he stepped down in 1998— making him the second-longest serving President in FIFA history behind Jules Rimet— football was unmistakably the world’s game, with billions around the world coming together every four years for the World Cup. He also made football an unmistakably corrupt enterprise, with FIFA becoming synonymous with greed and foul play, a legacy that would be cemented under his predecessor Sepp Blatter.

Yet for all the corruption that could be laid at his feet, Havelange also made football into a force for good in the world. Under his administration, FIFA enacted a broad social agenda and served as a vehicle a wide range of causes, from poverty to education to human rights. He expanded the sport’s reach into previously ignored parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia. FIFA partnered with UNICEF and made helping children in marginalized countries around the world a priority for an organization that was otherwise little more than a lucrative sporting and media cartel.

João Havelange did a lot of good in the world and paid himself a lot of money to do so. He had many friends and powerful enemies. His legacy is that philanthropic advocacy and corrupt avarice. He built something strong and beautiful and left a huge mess to be cleaned up. Havelange was, in short, complicated. And he’s probably the reason why you and I are able to get so worked up over this silly game. Havelange had 100 years to make his mark on the world, and he definitely didn’t waste that shot.

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