Sunday, August 28, 2016

Havelange was the Greatest Dictator

Havelange was the Greatest Dictator.

It almost passed unnoticed during the Rio Olympics that Joao Havelange, the Brazilian former FIFA President, had died, aged 100.

The major figure in post-war football governance is no more, and on immediate inspection, what a dark legacy he leaves.

Havelange, who effectively ruled world soccer from 1974-1998, oversaw the transformation of a sport with global appeal into a money-making behemoth replete with corruption, tarnishing the reputation of the game's governing body.

It was a Brazilian, Pele, who woke the world up to dazzling football and thanks to the proliferation of television, popularised the World Cup.

But it was another Brazilian who also realised television had also made football into a fat cow ripe for milking.

Substituting value with price, Havelange made selling the Beautiful Game FIFA's prime motivation and the resulting harvest of TV rights and corporate sponsorship dollars he only too happily spread among his coterie of parasites.

Under his tenure, the FIFA Executive Committee turned into a Stygian den of thieves populated by jobs-for-life do-nothings like Ricardo Texeira, Nicolas Leoz, Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, unbelievably corrupt men who would in any normal organisation have been fired years earlier.

The musical chairs in FIFA's ExCo and the current chaos in football governance is a natural result of the Brazilian's revolution.

His culture of embezzlement and bribes was carried on by his protege Sepp Blatter and after the fiasco of the 2018 & 2022 World Cup hosting vote, tournaments widely believed to have been bought, the Augean stables of FIFA have been under an unprecedented spotlight.

Havelange even showed up in Zurich like a thousand-year-old vampire to nod approvingly at the travesties of awarding tournaments to Russia and Qatar, a fitting testament to the dishonesty he engendered at the highest levels.

Over the years he had courted anyone with power, including several dictators, and effectively ran FIFA as one too.

In bed with Adidas' Horst Dassler, Havelange made the selling of rights his priority and the pocketing of as much of the revenue as possible his favourite pastime.

The overkill of international sponsors at World Cups is thanks to him more than anyone else, sponsors whose tawdry products demean the prowess of the tournament and often work against the health benefits football brings.

Havelange it should be remembered had never been a football man in the first place - he had swum for Brazil at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and played water-polo at the 1952 games.

His early administrative experience was in swimming, cycling and as president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation before he realised football had the biggest potential for political and financial exploitation.

Havelange's defeat of Stanley Rous for the 1974 FIFA Presidency remains a key turning-point in football history.

His capture of the presidency from the decent, if stuffy Englishman, brought bribery and other dark political tactics into soccer and almost half a century later the game's governing body still reeks of the hand of Havelange.

Rous had played a straight hand and sat down confident that his supporters would keep their word, while Havelange kept working the room until the end and managed to steal the victory through buying enough voters.

In Havelange's defence, Rous had shown an unwise acquiesence with apartheid South Africa and limited the number of finalists at the World Cup to 16, ignoring the growth of the global game.

At the 1974 finals, there were only three berths for nations outside the traditional strongholds of Europe and South America - places taken up by Australia, Haiti and Zaire. By 1998, 12 berths at the finals were for Africa, Asia and North and Central America.

Havelange's promise of more places for the developing world allowed him to harvest African votes in particular, a tactic continued to great effect by his favoured successor Sepp Blatter.

He also initiated World Cups at youth levels, paving the way for the host of tournaments FIFA organise today, but also spent FIFA money on facilities in developing nations, countries Rous had largely ignored.

Today African F.A.s receive half a million dollars each annually from FIFA and in 2006 the impossible happened when an African nation hosted the World Cup, another fruit of Havelange's personal interest in what had been hitherto dismissed as 'the dark continent'.

South Africa was a far from perfect host however, as anyone who remembers the traffic jams and poor transport options will attest, while no other African country can seriously consider hosting the competition in the foreseeable future.

The game had to globalise sooner or later but Havelange managed the changes with so much larceny that whatever good he achieved will be stained forever.

He had defeated Rous having raided the accounts of the Brazilian Sports Confederation he headed to fund his election.

Havelange worked hand-in-glove with Brazil's military dictatorship but for all his patriotism banned its greatest, indeed football's greatest hero Pele, from involvement in the 1994 World Cup in the USA, despite being the one soccer star all Americans could recognise.

This was because Pele had accused his son-in-law and FIFA vice-president Texeira of pocketing TV rights money in Brazil.

In 2012, Swiss prosecutors found he and 'Tyranosaurus Tex' had pilfered $41 million from FIFA's failure of a marketing company, International Sports & Leisure.

As an IOC member he was also accused of asking for gifts and inducements from Olympic bidding nations and probably helped Rio win the hosting for 2016.

Another legacy of Havelange is the lifeless spectacle of corporate sponsors filling the seats at World Cup matches, having paid over the odds to deprive genuine supporters of the experience.

The 1998 World Cup final was particularly moribund due to a majority of the seats in the Stade de France being sold to the highest bidder.

Anyone who has sat close to Brazil fans at away World Cups will have also been shocked how
unrepresentative they are of the people's game in their home country.

Despite the pervading stench of corruption, Havelange's iron grip on football meant he was greeted as a head of state, perhaps the world's premier, wherever he travelled. Jetting across the globe to be treated as royalty, perhaps only the Pope could come as close to the FIFA President.

As football grew bigger, true heads of state would fall over themselves in the hope of FIFA awarding them a World Cup finals, a situation Havelange only too easily took advantage of.

His death is no loss to our sport because the dishonesty and greed he fostered at the highest level of football continues to shame the Beautiful Game.

It will be some time football can cure itself from Havelange's poison, if it can be cured at all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Olympic Lessons

Olympic Lessons.

The Rio Olympic Games have just finished and that two-week fiesta every four years has rightly had the lion's share of our hearts and minds again, despite the opening of the European football calendar.

The Olympics is a useful aide-memoire that other sports are out there, rather like the Roman who was employed to whisper "Remember thou art mortal" in the ear of generals returning to the seven hills in triumph.

Rio also served, like London 2012 did, to show the public how elite sportsmen can be good role-models and do not have to cut such greedy, ill-educated figures as so many top footballers do.

The clean and honest endeavour of so many gold medallists always cast footballers' modest achievements in a poor light again, and the abundance of aggression-free joy from Olympic spectators also served to shine a light on the darker sides of the Beautiful Game.

Only two months before, Europe's top international sides had gathered in France for Euro 2016 and several city centres were left full of broken glass and blood stains. Rio has its social problems of course but they were not caused by visiting sports fans in August.

The corrupting influence of too much money is of course the salient difference between football and Olympic sports, but it is hard to see that problem improving anytime soon.

Such was the unbridled joy Rio unleashed, the start of the football season suddenly seemed distinctly unattractive.

Brazil seemed to be unaware that sports other than football existed during the games, given that swathes of empty seats was the norm at most events, with the notable exceptions of ones in which they had a shout of winning - boxing, judo and beach volleyball.

The full Maracana got its golden moment when Neymar scored the fifth and clinching spot-kick in the men's football final, but Marta & Co. missed out on a home double by losing their semi-final to Sweden. In losing the men's final, Germany missed their own football clean sweep too.

Women's football makes more sense at the Olympics than male football given the full national teams take part, but the absence of England, World Cup semi-finalists, but not an Olympic nation, jarred once more.

There should be no problem having Team GB for women, any more than there is having the British Lions play rugby now and again. Having a men's team still looks a no-go however, because qualification depends on UEFA U-21 competition, where there is no Great Britain.

Brazil's win in the men's tournament went a little way to soothing the horror of the 7-1 Maracanazo at the World Cup two years ago, and the host nation had at last a reason to get out in the streets and party, so all's well that ends well.

The golden boy's successful seizing of his big chance on the big stage closed that chapter in Brazilian football history with aplomb, but no-one should be under any illusions that Olympic success will translate into victories at the subsequent World Cup in Russia in 2018.

The sele├žao's next big short at glory is realistically the Copa America at home in 2019.

In the swirl of victory it is easy to forget that Brazil drew their first two games 0:0 with South Africa and Iraq. Only when they switched from a malfunctioning 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 did they start scoring goals.

Brazil also had two Barcelona regulars - Neymar and Rafinha - in their final team, which contrasted with the unknown German U23s lining up against them.

The tournament rules of eight U-23 players and three overage players is perhaps the best compromise they organisers can come up with but football, try as it might, still does not seem a good fit with the Olympics, even in such a soccer-mad nation as Brazil.

And so here we are with another long season beckoning. By the law of averages, the big teams will dominate once more and it is unlikely we will see another Leicester City.

The Champions League will only become interesting in next Spring's knock-out stages and there is no big tournament to look forward to in the summer of 2017.

I will need a little time to fall back in love with football.

Bring it on.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile