Joao Havelange, who died Tuesday at 100, turned FIFA into a global business behemoth and helped bring the Olympics to Rio, only to resign in disgrace after a corruption scandal.
The Samaritano Hospital in Rio de Janeiro confirmed that Havelange, who had been treated there in July for pneumonia, died early in the morning.
Plaudits for the footballing boss quickly came from his controversial successor Sepp Blatter, who was suspended last year as head of FIFA over ethics violations.
“He had one idea in his head, to make football a global game with his slogan ‘football is the universal language,’ and he succeeded,” Blatter said in a statement.
“It’s his development of football that made our sport the uncontested leader in society on the social, cultural and economic levels — and let’s not forget its political influence,” Blatter said.
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said that flags would be flown at half mast at Rio Olympic venues.
Brazilian interim president Michel Temer called Havelange one of the “important leaders” of world sport.
– Big but controversial –
There’s no doubting the impact of Havelange.
As head of FIFA for 24 years and with half a century on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Havelange thought and acted big, becoming a central figure in the evolution of today’s sporting mega-events.
Among his last achievements was to use his clout to help Rio win its bid to host this year’s Olympic Games — the first held in South America.
Havelange “sees the world through a telescope and not through a microscope,” former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said.
Born to a wealthy Belgian immigrant family in Rio de Janeiro in 1916, Jean-Marie Faustin Goedefroid de Havelange graduated with a law degree, but sport was his true love.
He represented Brazil in swimming at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and again in Helsinki in 1952, where he was on the water polo team.
His real calling turned out to be in management where he rose to the top echelons of sporting bodies, setting a standard for the kind of lengthy — and deeply entrenched — reigns that some critics blame for fostering a culture of corruption.
Havelange was president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation for 15 years and joined the Brazilian Olympic Committee in 1955, then the IOC in 1963 where he would remain until 2011.
In 1974 he got the job of FIFA president, succeeding Sir Stanley Rous as the first non-European in the role. Over the next quarter century Havelange would change the way the world experienced football.
– Global game –
Under Havelange the World Cup expanded from a 16-nation event focused on Europe and a few South American sides to the planet-wide sporting festival it has become.
By the time Havelange handed over the FIFA reins to Blatter in 1998, the number of competing nations had doubled to 32, with 12 coming from Asia, Africa or the CONCACAF region for North and Central America and the Caribbean.
He also oversaw FIFA’s inauguration of the Under-17 World Cup, the World Youth Cup, the Women’s World Cup, the Indoor World Cup and also introduced the Confederations’ Cup, played between continental champions.
“I did not become president of FIFA just to watch good football and applaud,” Havelange said just before making way for Blatter.
– Disgrace –
Havelange neither drank nor smoked and met with Pope John Paul II on no less than three occasions. However, a less savory side eventually overwhelmed his image as a clean-living powerbroker.
Amid swirling allegations of corruption, Havelange resigned from the IOC in December 2011. Officially he left for health reasons, but his departure was two days before he was due to face an ethics investigation into allegations he had taken bribes to funnel contracts to a marketing company called ISL.
In 2013, Havelange resigned as honorary president of FIFA after confirmation of reports that he had taken bribes.
Critics say that corruption was as much Havelange’s legacy as the successful internationalization of football. His successor Blatter would himself announce his resignation in June 2015 after a massive corruption probe led to the arrests of seven top FIFA officials.
Havelange still casts a long shadow over international sport.
Athletes competing in the Rio Games race in a stadium which — despite complaints from some quarters — still bears the name: Joao Havelange Olympic Stadium.