x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A scandal in Fifa discredits nearly four decades of football

To understand the gravity of Havelange's fall from grace, it is first important to appreciate his unparalleled impact on the world of football.

Olympic swimmer, 1936. Olympic water polo player, 1952. International cycling administrator. Member of International Olympic Committee (IOC). And above all else, as Fifa president, the father of modern football.

It was a damning indictment of Fifa that when former president João Havelange was accused of corruption last week, the reaction was anything but shock. Havelange and his son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira, the former Brazilian Football Federation president, were accused of receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks from International Sports and Leisure, which they helped to set up in 1982.

To understand the gravity of Havelange's fall from grace, it is first important to appreciate his unparalleled impact on the world of football.

When the Brazilian won the Fifa presidency in 1974, few could have imagined the seismic commercial shift that international football was about to experience. By enlisting the help of Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, Havelange was able to fund his Fifa vision, creating a model that all sporting organisations would follow. There is a reason why you only drink one brand of fizzy drink, eat only one type of French fries and use one particular credit card at World Cups and Olympic Games. João Havelange, take a bow.

Within two decades, Fifa became an unstoppable beast, controlling every aspect of the Beautiful Game, advancing youth and women's football and turning the World Cup into the most popular global event. And when it was time for Mr Havelange to step down in 1998, he threw his weight behind one of his cronies, Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, in his successful bid to take over the Fifa presidency.

In light of over a decade of scandals at Fifa, it is impossible to view Havelange's corruption charges in isolation to his successor's reign.

Last week, Mr Blatter, perhaps sensing that Havelange - like Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam before him - had become toxically tainted with corruption, called for Fifa to remove his honorary presidency. In May, Mr Blatter had led a standing ovation for the 96-year-old at a Fifa event in Budapest. Once a Havelange man, Mr Blatter now stands as his executioner.

By the weekend, perhaps expecting yet more bad publicity from Europe, Mr Blatter got his digs in first, casting doubt on the legitimacy of Germany's nomination as hosts of the 2006 World Cup. The accusation incensed the bid's president, Franz Beckenbauer, and the current president of the German Football Association, Reinhard Rauball, who called for Mr Blatter to step down as Fifa's chief. But what doesn't kill Sepp only makes him stronger. "It is nothing new that people want rid of me," he said "Sometimes it is the British media, then the American and then the German."

The Fifa circus shows no signs of slowing down. Yesterday, as part of his anti-corruption reforms, Mr Blatter, who may or may not have been wearing oversized shoes and a red nose, convened Fifa's executive committee to investigate the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively. As ever, legally, Fifa remains accountable only to itself.

But what will Havelange's legacy be? Perhaps it's best summed up by Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner in their book Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.

"Saying no to the inevitable kickbacks that come with power requires humility and even a faintly noble sense of purpose," they write. "On the whole, it seems those in charge of football are a bit like those in charge of politics: kidding themselves that they're doing this for the game, when really the game is doing it for them."

Havelange's reputation is, rightly, in tatters. Mr Blatter, on the other hand, remains untouchable. But the days of unaccountable dictators are fading. Today, the old chief finds himself, belatedly, beyond redemption. The day when Fifa itself is in the same position cannot be far away.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_