Corrupt Yet Visionary: The Life of João Havelange

Former FIFA president and member of the IOC, João Havelange, passed away last night at the age of 100.

João Havelange, using his membership of the Brazilian Confederation of Sports as a springboard, won the FIFA presidency in 1974 and held on until passing over the reins to Sepp Blatter in 1998. Havelange presided over the expansion of the FIFA World Cup from 16 teams to 32, increasing involvement from Asia, Africa, North America and Oceania and helping to make football the behemoth we all know and sometimes begrudgingly love today. Under his presidency, FIFA grew astronomically from a small cottage industry to a multinational conglomerate.

A qualified lawyer, Olympic swimmer and water polo player, Havelange will more likely be remembered for the corruption scandals that have engulfed his beloved FIFA since his terms in office. The immense growth of the game attracted big sponsors and massive TV deals, bringing along with it opportunities for corruption and backhanders.

Before its collapse in 2001, International Sports and Leisure (ISL) had specialised in buying and selling global sports rights for tournaments such as World Cups, business it had largely won through payments made to Havelange and his then son-in-law Ricardo Teixera. Han Joachim-Eckert’s report into the ISL case stated that Havelange and Teixera, although never officially breaking any Swiss laws, “as football officials, should not have accepted any bribe money, and should have had to pay it back since the money was in connection with the exploitation of media rights.” He followed up later to call – in more strongly worded terms – their conduct as “morally and ethically reproachable.” It was widely reported that Havelange and Teixera had pocketed £27million from dodgy deals with ISL, but when repayment was made, they were forced to return only a meagre £2.7million fraction.

Havelange stepped down from his role as honorary president of FIFA in April 2013 following Joachim-Eckert’s investigation into bribery, citing health problems for his retirement, and never dealing with the allegations in public.

An undoubted visionary who grew world football into a truly global game, but whose reputation would never recover from the scandals of later life. Perhaps future generations will look more favourably on his record than the present.