How Joao Havelange became FIFA President

Björn Horgby
Örebro University

Luiz Guilherme Burlamaqui
The Making of a Global FIFA: Cold War Politics and the Rise of João Havelange to the FIFA Presidency, 1950–1974
Translated by John Ellis-Guardiola
243 pages, hardcover
Berlin: De Gruyter 2023 (RERIS Studies in International Sport Relations)
ISBN 978-3-11-075968-6

After World War II, Sweden was temporarily a major power in football as shown by the gold in the London Olympics in 1948 and the success of the professional players in Italy. In the World Cup in Brazil in the summer of 1950, Sweden won bronze, after the team was thoroughly humiliated by Brazil with 1–7. That match has become known because Swedish Public Radio hired FACIT managing director Gunnar Göransson as a commentator. When the Swedish players were eliminated, he repeatedly exclaimed “Oj oj!” –later to become his nickname. The football enthusiast Göransson had good contacts in Brazilian football and also served as a promoter when Brazilian teams toured Western and Eastern Europe. After the 1958 World Cup, journalist Börje Lantz came to Brazil. With the help of Göransson’s network of contacts, he became one of the first football agents, who for a 10 percent compensation mediated many Brazilian and also Swedish players to the major Western European clubs.

The agent system, long opposed by FIFA, shows how global male football was commercialized in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, there was a rapid decolonization in Africa and Asia as well as an incipient mediatization, which in the long run changed the economic conditions of football. For the 1966 World Cup in England, FIFA signed a lucrative contract for the broadcasting rights with the BBC.

Göransson was part of the industrial expansion that made Sao Paulo Sweden’s third city, in terms of the number of industrial employees. In 1964, the military seized power in Brazil and retained it until the mid-1980s. Emergency laws were introduced, and the opposition was persecuted. At the same time, the military succeeded – much like Japan – in developing an economic growth model in which state and capital cooperated. An annual growth of around 10 percent was achieved by, among other things, the state investing in the expansion of infrastructure and other ways of supporting industry. The construction of the new capital Brasilia was a prestigious military project. Foreign capital, the world’s largest iron ore mine and the expansive industry created growth.

Burlamaqui writes fluently and captivatingly. Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about how the global football movement worked – within its political context

After World War II, British sports officials held many leading positions in the global sports movement. From the early 1960s until 1974, FIFA was led by the conservative Briton Stanley Rous, who had his main support in Europe and in Southeast Asia. In the early 1960s, only 2 percent of FIFA resources went to Africa, while all the more so to other continents. In addition, Rous ensured that reliable people from, among others, West Germany and Great Britain led the educational initiatives. In practice, he managed a Western European colonialist legacy. Therefore, it was no coincidence that from 1970 onwards he was challenged by the leader of the Brazilian Football Confederation, Joao Havelange, who in 1974 was elected president of FIFA. Brazilian historian Luiz Guilherme Burlamaqui’s doctoral thesis is about how Havelange could be elected president. The English edition of the book is called The Making of a Global FIFA: Cold War Politics and the Rise of Joao Havelange to the FIFA Presidency, 1950–1974.

Burlamaqui builds his presentation on an identity and narrative perspective and initially highlights how Havelange himself at different times increasingly self-aggrandized why he was chosen. In his own research, he successfully uses the global and regional context as an explanation. Based on a very broad reading of previous research on global relations and Brazilian politics, research related to sports, etc., but also diplomatic reports and interviews, he designs a narrative that differs from the Western version.

A problem for Havelange was to appear as the representative of all of Latin America – here there were many conflicts to bridge. One step was to portray the 1966 World Cup as a British-German theft. German and British refereeing practices were considered to disadvantage the Latin American teams. For example, they allowed Pelé to be kicked to death in a World Cup where a lot of brutal methods were accepted.

The imperialist rhetoric of the Westerners served as fuel in the creation of a Third World identity. The colonial history made it possible to unite Latin America with the Asian and African blocs. For the African states, South African apartheid played a major role. White racist South Africa was supported by Rous – but not by Havelange who was able to show that Brazil was a multi-ethnic country that thus served as an example.

Havelange came from the Brazilian upper class. As a successful athlete – Olympic swimmer and water polo player – Havelange built his sports capital. He was shaped by the political culture of the 1950s, which saw industrialization and modernization as the way forward. Based on his background and his membership in the Social Democrats, he networked. He quickly gained increasingly important positions within the Brazilian Football Federation and in 1956 became vice-president. Barely two years later, he was elected president—a post he held for sixteen years. His goal was that the Federation’s informed elite would provide technology, medicine and good administration that benefited national football. The World Cup titles in 1958 and 1962 secured his position of power within the federation.

Jean-Marie Faustin Goedefroid “João” de Havelange, 1916–2016, photographed at a reception for members of the FIFA executive committee in the Chanclery in Berlin 2006.(Shutterstock/360b)

 The commercialization of male football in the 1960s and 1970s was not only a consequence of the advent of agents, but also of advertising revenue, corporate sponsorship, and revenue from the sale of television rights. In the late 1960s, Havelange created a sponsorship pool that helped fund the national team’s path to the World Cup in Mexico 1970. He had very good contacts both within the military regime and within big business. With the help of these connections and a national mobilization to support the team, he created a national identity – instead of identities based on social contradictions. And the national team’s success in Mexico 1970 laid the foundation for his further global career. One of the building blocks of the campaign to become FIFA president was that Havelange used the national successes as a springboard for what he intended to achieve globally.

Rapid economic growth and cooperation between the state and capital formed the basis of the sports model he championed – in which the construction of several colossal football stadiums was a result, as well as the modern use of science in the service of sport. The Brazilian sports model was seen as an example to emulate by many African and Asian states.

Havelange also contributed to both the Brazilian federation and FIFA gaining stronger financial muscle. He signed significant contracts with Coca-Cola and Adidas. These resources helped FIFA to expand its activities in the Third World, but also to change the balance of power within FIFA, which contributed to Havelange being re-elected to his post five times. Before Havelange’s election, national FIFA delegates had to pay for their travel to and subsistence at the congress themselves. This meant that many poor countries in the wake of early decolonization did not have the resources to send delegates to FIFA congresses. However, the national economic muscle and Havelange’s extensive network of contacts helped the Brazilian federation to finance the travel and subsistence of some delegates at the 1974 congress. It contributed to his election as president. The author’s conclusion is that the vote buying played some role in the victory but was not the only explanation.

FIFA has often been surrounded by allegations of corruption. Havelange’s own Crown Prince Joseph Blatter was eventually forced out of his post and the current President Infantino has also had to bear the brunt of some strange decisions. However, the author does not delve into this issue.

Burlamaqui writes fluently and captivatingly. Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about how the global football movement worked – within its political context. The book represents a large task that sometimes leads to some sprawl, which is also due to the author not controlling the production sufficiently. In addition, the analytical precision is weakened by the fact that the narrative is allowed to come to the fore. Several of the theoretical building blocks are rather loosely inserted and are not developed further. These are notes in the margin. Burlamaqui’s book on the election of Havelange as FIFA president will become a standard work in various branches of sports research. It is a blessing that the dissertation has been translated into English, so that it can be read by an audience that has its Western interpretation patterns challenged and corrected.

Copyright © Björn Horgby 2023

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