For a man who spent many of his 100 years involved with the Olympic movement and Fifa, it is apt Joao Havelange’s sporting legacy is defined as much by scandal as it is unbridled expansionism.
Brazilian flags were at half-mast across the Olympics yesterday to honour the former Fifa president, who died in a Rio hospital aged 100.
A talented sportsman turned supremely powerful sports administrator, Havelange saw the International Olympic Committee and Fifa become bigger businesses and broader churches on his watch but, as of 2016, it is impossible to say he left either in good moral standing.
He resigned from both between 2011 and 2013 following ethics investigations and his patronage of the disgraced Sepp Blatter, who succeeded him as Fifa president, will be a lasting taint on a long and varied CV.
Havelange was the man in charge throughout football’s boom period and is famously quoted as saying on arrival at Fifa’s Zurich headquarters in 1974 he found just a dozen permanent staff and $20 in the kitty. “On the day I departed 24 years later,” he said.
“I left property and contracts worth over $4 billion.”
The focus on financial growth was telling, but he also oversaw a growth in Fifa membership of more than 50 nations, the World Cup expansion from 16 to 32 teams and a raft of new world level U17s, U20s and women events.
He could, and indeed was, accused of many things but never a lack of ambition, as evidenced by his unfulfilled dream of arranging a friendly match between Israel and Palestine at the UN.
“My biggest disappointment was the inability to find a peaceful, sports-based solution to that conflict,” he told Fifa.com, highlighting the scale of his vision if not the bounds of his realism.
Born Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid Havelange on May 8 1916, to a Belgian father and Brazilian mother, he was sent to a French boarding school before returning to study for a PhD at Law School of Fluminense.
But sport was always present alongside academia and he took part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a swimmer. Sixteen years and one switch of sports later he represented Brazil’s water polo team in the Helsinki Games.
Despite those achievements he was destined for higher things behind the scenes than in the pool.
In 1955 he took a role at the Brazilian National Olympic Committee, in 1958 became president of what later became the Brazilian Football Confederation and took a concurrent seat at the IOC from 1963.
Brazilian football hit the heights during Havelange’s involvement, winning the World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970, and he was soon eyeing the global stage himself.
He went against England’s Stanley Rous for the Fifa presidency in 1974 and completed 86 overseas trips in just two years to build support, styling himself as the man to end what had become a European hegemony.
He successfully navigated another five elections but never gave the impression of governing by consensus, with an official Fifa profile even describing him as “unashamedly autocratic”.
After handing the reins to his handpicked successor, Blatter, he was named honorary Fifa president in 1998 and became the International Olympic Commitee’s longest-serving member.
Health problems hit in 2006 but he had a pacemaker fitted and was well enough to attend that year’s World Cup in Germany, stopping to celebrate his 90th birthday in Paris surrounded by wife Anna-Maria and daughter Lucia as well as three grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
But numerous accusations of corruption surfaced in his latter years.
He resigned from the IOC in December 2011, days before an ethics hearing was due to pass judgement on him, and also walked away from his Fifa post two years later after an ethics probe.
Ethics court judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, who carried out the probe, described Havelange’s conduct in relation to bribery charges involving a sports marketing firm “morally and ethically reproachable”.
In 2009, during Rio’s bid presentation for the Olympics, he asked an audience in Copenhagen to join him at the event to celebrate his 100th birthday. The Games will now provide the backdrop for his wake.
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