The Brazilian flag was flown at half-mast and a minute silence observed at all venues of the ongoing Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in a fitting tribute to the glittering accomplishments of one of the world’s most iconic sporting personalities, Joao Havelange, who passed on, August 16. The former President of the Federation Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA) died of a respiratory infection at the age of 100.
The passage of Havelange while his birthplace was hosting the 2016 Olympics took the world football community by surprise. The timing of his demise was, however, significant. It was he, in 2009, who led Rio de Janeiro’s hosting bid presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Copenhagen, Denmark, writing the members to, as he put it, “join me in celebrating my 100th birthday at the 2016 Games in Brazil.” It is only fitting, therefore, that he lived to see his wish come true and passed on a fulfilled man, after a glorious life that was passionately devoted to the round leather game. The world will forever remember Havelange for his invaluable contributions to the development of the game.
An accomplished athlete, Havelange, born May 8, 1916, was a member of the Brazilian swimming team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and later competed in water polo at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. He headed a number of sports organisations before becoming a member of the Brazilian National Olympic Committee in 1955, a post he held until 1963, when he was elected a member of the IOC.
During that time, he also served as President (1958 -73) of the Brazilian Sports Federation, an organisation charged with overseeing football in Brazil. Remarkably, the country won three World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970) during his tenure as president of the organisation.
Indisputably, Havelange’s most profound accomplishment was his role as FIFA President for 24 years (1974 – 1998). His election in 1974 was the first time a non-European would hold the post. To his credit, he transformed FIFA into a multibillion-dollar business, after inheriting a near-empty treasury and a few staff.
Truly, FIFA was a small organisation with about a dozen employees when Havelange took over at its Zurich Headquarters. His words: “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. Not too bad, I would say”. We cannot agree more with his summation as placed on the FIFA website. The expansion of football and the growth of FIFA is nothing but a testament to Havelange’s administrative acumen.
He was dutifully rewarded for his efforts, as he was re-elected six times as FIFA President. It is no wonder that the current FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, has lavished praises on Havelange, saying that the “whole football community should be grateful” for his contribution to football.
During Havelange’s presidency, FIFA membership expanded by nearly a third, to more than 200 nations and territories. He expanded World Cup participation from 16 to 32 teams, and also created the Women World Cup. Unarguably, he made football the world’s most popular sport.
However, with plenty of cash for football in FIFA’s treasury, came widespread financial wrongdoing by its top officials. The most recent is the indictment and ousting of many of its executives, including the immediate past President and Havelange’s successor, Joseph Sepp Blatter, and Michel Platini, President of European Football body, UEFA, over allegations of financial impropriety. Havelange was also not spared. In 2013, FIFA Ethics Committee Judge, Joachim Eckert, said Havelange’s conduct had been “morally and ethically reproachable”. But, Havelange was never convicted of any crime or punished. He was allowed to resign his honorary presidency of FIFA in 2013. Nonetheless, his landmark accomplishments as an iconic sports administrator are not in doubt, the controversies surrounding part of his presidency, notwithstanding.
Born to a Belgian father and a Brazilian mother, Havelange trained as a lawyer. Undoubtedly, he lived a fulfilled life of service to the game he loved. He enthused about his extensive travels around the world, which he said left him with unforgettable fond memories.
Taken together, as the 7th President of FIFA, and its second largest president in its history behind Jules Rimet, Havelange left FIFA much better than he met it. He deserved all the honours he got. These include honorary Vice President of the Brazilian Ice Sports Federation for his support in the development of Winter Sports in Brazil; Order of Special Merit in Sports (Brazil); Cavalier of the Order of Vasa (Sweden) and Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain). He also deserves the eulogies that have attended his passage from all over the world. We commiserate with his family and the global football community, and urge football administrators all over the world to emulate his exemplary life of service to the game.