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Time Finally Up for FIFA's Havelange

June 07, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES

PARIS — If it seems that Joao Havelange has been in power forever, he has been.

Richard Nixon was still in the White House, the Bee Gees--quel horreur!--were still in the top 20 and Shaquille O'Neal was still in diapers--extra-large, no doubt--when the Brazilian was elected president of FIFA.

The year was 1974, and at the 39th FIFA Congress in Frankfurt, a couple of days before the Germany '74 World Cup began, Jean Marie Faustin Godefroid Havelange won the vote.

Easy to see why he goes by Joao, though, isn't it?

Almost a quarter-century later, Havelange's era is nearly over. At 82, he can count his remaining time in office not in days, but hours.

On Monday, representatives of FIFA's 198 member nations gathered here for the latest FIFA Congress will bid the imperious Brazilian adieu. There will be sincere thanks for all he has done, but also a large measure of relief.

Time has passed Havelange by, and FIFA needs a younger leader, one with new vision and new ideas. One not so wrapped up in his own accomplishments-- longevity seems to be Havelange's main one, unkind critics would say--that he can articulate a future for the planet's most widely played and widely followed sport.

Unfortunately, the leader FIFA will elect will be younger only in comparison to Havelange, whose age is perhaps more easily understood when you know that he competed for Brazil as a swimmer in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

He did accomplish much during his presidency. For one thing, the sport--and the World Cup in particular--has grown beyond all recognition in the past quarter-century.

When Havelange, who was born in Rio de Janeiro of Belgian parents in 1916, succeeded England's Sir Stanley Rous as FIFA president on June 11, 1974, the World Cup field consisted of 16 teams.

By 1982, the number had been increased to 24, with countries from Africa, Asia and North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF) being the main beneficiaries of the additional berths. When the France 98 World Cup begins Wednesday, 32 teams will be competing, and again the developing soccer world has been helped the most.

Critics have derided Havelange for "watering down" the field by increasing its size and for trading World Cup places for votes in order to cling to power.

If that is true, then at least one of his would-be successors already is doing much the same thing. Joseph "Sepp" Blatter of Switzerland, FIFA's general secretary for the last 17 years and Havelange's right-hand man, is quite shameless about it.

"I will not give you all my programs for Africa," Blatter told his audience during a campaign swing through Monrovia, Liberia, on Wednesday, "but what I can promise, which will be a reality, is that if I am elected president of FIFA, I will give the 2006 World Cup to Africa."

Oh, really?

Did democracy just die in Zurich as well as Rio?

What about England and Germany, which both have launched expensive campaigns to stage the 2006 event? What about Argentina, Brazil and perhaps even Australia, which are contemplating applying?

The World Cup is not awarded on the basis of one man's decree, it is a vote taken by FIFA's executive leadership. Already, Blatter, 62, is beginning to sound just as autocratic as Havelange. A troubling sign.

The Swiss gnome has been trying for weeks to woo African voters. In early May in a speech in Johannesburg, he promised huge financial investment in the sport's infrastructure on the continent, especially in the black townships of South Africa, the country where the 2006 World Cup would probably be played if Blatter gets his way.

Earlier, he sounded like any cheap politician in trying to promise all things to all constituencies, knowing full well that such promises are empty.

"Of the 200 million licensed players in the world, 40 million are women," Blatter claimed. "A woman must be on the executive committee."

An acceptable stance, certainly, but again, not one that Blatter alone can dictate.

It has been that sort of attitude that has narrowed the circle of Havelange admirers by a considerable degree over the past 24 years. The more his power was consolidated, the more aloof and dictatorial he became. It was his way or no way.

Lennart Johansson, the 66-year-old Swede who is Blatter's only rival in Monday's presidential election, attacked this point time and again.

"He commands FIFA like a dictator," Johansson said of Havelange in March. "He was the right man at the right time and in the right place. He has done a lot for the football world, but times have changed.

"His behavior today is unacceptable. At the end of his career, he should show stature rather than endangering a life's work."

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