Joao Havelange, who as president of Fifa for two decades transformed soccer’s governing body into a multi-billion-dollar business and a hotbed for subsequent corruption that damaged its reputation, has died. He was 100.
The Samaritano Hospital in Rio de Janeiro said he died early yesterday, while Rio was hosting the Olympic Games. In 2009, Havelange led off Rio’s bid presentation to the International Olympic Commitee (IOC) in Copenhagen by inviting the members to vote to “join me in celebrating my 100th birthday” at the 2016 Games in Brazil.
Havelange expanded the World Cup from 16 to 32 teams and made it one of sport’s most important events. He organised six World Cups as Fifa president from 1974 to 1998, when Sepp Blatter replaced him. He secured lucrative broadcast deals, brought nations into Fifa and created the women’s World Cup.
With more cash for football also came widespread financial wrongdoing by its top officials, including Havelange. In 2013, Fifa ethics court judge Joachim Eckert said Havelange’s conduct had been “morally and ethically reproachable”.
Havelange was never punished. He was allowed to resign his honorary presidency of Fifa in 2013.
Prior to that, Havelange also resigned in December 2011 as a member of the IOC just days before its leadership was expected to suspend him and rule on claims that he took a $1 million kickback.
Three of Fifa’s most notorious officials – his son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira, Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner – joined Fifa’s executive committee during Havelange’s presidency.
All three were subsequently swept up in corruption investigations by Swiss and US authorities last year that also brought the end of Blatter’s 17-year presidency.
Fifa was a small organisation with about a dozen employees when Havelange took over at its Zurich headquarters in 1974.
“I found an old house and $20 in the kitty,” Havelange told Fifa’s website.
“On the day I departed 24 years later, I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion. Not too bad, I’d say.”
He was re-elected president six times, capitalising on his contact-building across world football. Fifa’s membership expanded by nearly one-third, to more than 200 nations and territories, under Havelange. China was readmitted in 1980 having left the organization in 1958.
“I clocked 26,000 hours in the air, the equivalent of spending three years in an airplane,” Havelange said. “The only country I never visited was Afghanistan, because they wouldn’t let me in.”
The son of a Belgian father and a Brazilian mother, Havelange was a top-notch athlete before becoming a sports administrator. He swam for Brazil at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and played on its water polo team at the Helsinki Games in 1952.
He headed the Brazilian football confederation for nearly two decades, when Brazil’s national team won its first three World Cup titles in 1958, 1962 and 1970.
Havelange was the first non-European head of Fifa and its longest serving president, stepping down at age 82.
In a 1999 survey by the IOC, Havelange was voted among the top three sports leaders of the 20th century, behind former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin. He joined the IOC in 1963.
Havelange had a heart pacemaker implanted in 2006. He was in hospital for more than two months, including several weeks in intensive care, in 2012 because of an infection in his right ankle.