Joao Havelange, soccer's godfather, and his U.S. legacy

Before he was the godfather of soccer, Joao Havelange was the godfather of Brazilian sports. And before that he was a two-sport Olympian. In a career that spanned 16 years and World War II, he swam for Brazil in Berlin in 1936 and played water polo in Helsinki in 1952.

Havelange, who swam every morning before breakfast well into his 90s, invited International Olympic Committee members in 2009, in leading Rio de Janeiro's bid presentation to the IOC, to join them in celebrating his 100th birthday at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Havelange celebrated his 100th birthday on May 8 and lived until the track & field competition started at the Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange. The longest-serving FIFA president (1974-98) died on Tuesday at the Samaritano Hospital in Rio.

Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange was the son of Belgian immigrants, a lawyer by training, who made his fortune in the transportation business, operating buses. He made his name in soccer as the head of the Brazilian Sports Confederation during Brazilian soccer's glory years when Brazil won three World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970).

Havelange became FIFA president in 1974 and transformed soccer from a parochial sport whose power was concentrated in Europe to a global sport dominated by commercial interests. Havelange was the ultimate power broker who used all his political and commercial connections to cut deals and consolidate his power around the world.

FIFA (and the IOC) used a third party -- ISL -- to market their media and commercial rights, and Havelange made sure ISL remembered who was boss. Havelange's model for self-enrichment -- kickbacks -- was copied by soccer bosses around the world in a pattern only recently revealed by the Federal indictment of dozens of soccer kingpins.

“I found an old house and $20 in the kitty,” Havelange said after leaving in 1998. “On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion. Not too bad, I'd say.”

Everything blew up after ISL filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and Swiss investigators uncovered widespread payoffs, then not a crime in Switzerland, where FIFA is based.

How much exactly Havelange and then-son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira took is not known, but ISL records showed payments to accounts to the two Brazilians totaled almost $22 million in nine years (1992-2000) and they paid back $6.1 million in a confidential settlement.

Havelange resigned as honorary president of FIFA in 2013 after a FIFA ethics report determined he was "morally and ethically reproachable" for taking kickbacks from ISL. Two years earlier, he resigned as a member of the IOC, which he joined in 1963.

That disgrace did not prevent the IOC from ordering the Brazilian flag to be lowered to half-staff at Olympic venues on Tuesday.

“I clocked 26,000 hours in the air, the equivalent of spending three years in an airplane,” Havelange once said. “The only country I never visited was Afghanistan, because they wouldn't let me in.”

In later years, he came to the United States often. What Havelange wanted he usually got, and he decided after soccer's popularity at the 1984 Olympics that the World Cup needed to come to the United States.  Even if that meant he had to break with Brazil, which was one of three bidders with the USA and Morocco, he gave his nod to the USA to host the 1994 World Cup. The World Cup came to the USA in 1994, it was a great success, and soccer took off.

Havelange was always a larger than life figure, who spoke French slowly in a deep gravely voice that was easy to understand. The first time I met him was in Rome during the 1980 European Championship. He was walking with his wife and daughter, Teixeira's then-wife, on a Sunday afternoon near the UEFA hotel.

The last time I saw Havelange was at a reception on the eve of the 1994 U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting in San Diego. Despite the success of the World Cup, Alan Rothenberg, the president of U.S. Soccer, was in a tough re-election fight. Havelange's style was to show up at an event, his mere presence a signal whom he expected everyone should throw their support behind.

Rothenberg had amassed enough support from the rank and file -- the youth and amateurs -- that he was going to win with or without Havelange's backing, but Havelange's presence at the reception the event was incongruous.

Elsewhere, everyone might have stopped to acknowledge the godfather. But at this event, soccer folks went about mingling and chatting without giving their special guest a second thought.

2 comments about "Joao Havelange, soccer's godfather, and his U.S. legacy".
  1. Field of Candles, August 17, 2016 at 6:36 p.m.

    We lit a candle in the memory of Joao Havelange. #LightACandle, too.

  2. Ric Fonseca, August 20, 2016 at 2:03 p.m.

    I am one of thousands of people who met Mr. Havelange, the first time during the 1984 LA Olympics final match at the rose Bowl. I was a volunteer translator/interpreter and was called in to be a standby; the second time was during the 1994 WCUSA. I was designated WC historian for the organization and prior to the competition, I was again summoned to act as an translator/interpreter for a meeting between two executives of one of FIFA's major sponsors, Havelange and Blatter. Because of the non disclosure agreement I had to sign, I cannot divulge the nature of the meeting even though this took place in 1994; the final time was at the closing of US Soccer's AGM, when I was appointed to do simultaneous translation for Havelange, even though he was very capable of doing it himself, still it became a challenge for me, there I was side-by-side with FIFA's head honcho, nervous as heck, but survived the ten minute discourse, that is until I sorta flubbed his closing comments, he sat down and I had to ask him to repeat them. Needless to say, he chuckled and told me to relax, and thanked me tor helping him out. So I can say, RIP Mr. Havelange, and muito obrigado!!!

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