The bags around his eyes droop like a weary basset hound. Liver spots creep steadily across his brow and cheeks. Although there are still some wispy strands of silver atop his head, they are becoming fewer and fewer, and the lines drawn across his forehead should tell many stories. It is strangely difficult to read Jean-Marie Faustin Godefroid de Havelange’s face, however. His steely, piercing dark eyes throw you off balance for a moment, but a moment is all Havelange has ever needed – this is the self-made man who rose from a comfortable upbringing to work as a lawyer and vice president of two Brazilian bus companies and eventually become arguably the most influential man in the world.

Europe and Latin America are worlds apart, and yet tied inextricably together by the world’s most popular religion. If football could be indeed considered thus, then without question Havelange would have been the high priest. Keir Radnedge has been covering football on a global scale since the 1966 World Cup, and has met Havelange on a number of occasions in relation to football and the Olympics, and so is well placed to describe his impressively forceful personality: “He has an iron hand in an iron glove. Not arrogant but self-possessed and self-confident without even having to think about it. He is used respect and deference from journalists and business associates – the latter being far more important and useful than the first.”

Havelange did more than simply cross the Atlantic; by his calculations, by the time he left office following the denouement of the 1998 World Cup he had visited 192 countries, or to put it another way, all but seven of FIFA’s then-member nations, all the while forging relationships that would shape the future of football forever. Just to campaign for his ascension to the FIFA throne, he visited 86 countries. It wasn’t only his air miles that counted; his ruthless instinct and understanding of the importance of influence were what laid the unshakeable foundations for his reign of power in Zürich.

Born to Belgian parents in Rio de Janeiro almost a century ago, ‘João’, as he became known, realised quickly that he had to fight to get as much as he wanted. A tall muscular man even now as he approaches his eleventh decade, he represented his country at water polo at the 1936 and 1952 Olympic Games before leading the Brazilian delegation to Melbourne in 1956, after having had a less than impressive career as a limited centre half on the books with Fluminense.

Success in the pool didn’t fall into his lap; he had to graft every day, sometimes swimming 7 or 8 miles a day to increase his stamina, until suddenly he began dominating his opponents. “I don’t know where it came from, but suddenly something inside of me exploded,” he said speaking to David Yallop in the writer’s exposé on the governing body’s control over the game, How FIFA Stole The Game. “I started to win. I won them [swimming competitions] all. I wanted to fulfil the wishes of my father and one day my condition seemed to explode and I won.”

It was through his administrative career that he truly stood out – not only did he succeed Sir Stanley Rous as president of FIFA in 1974, he was a member of the IOC for 48 years, President of the CBF, a member of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and honourary vice president of the Brazilian Ice Sports Federation (CBDG). He has been awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (France), the Order of Special Merit in Sports (Brazil), Comandante da Ordem do Infante Dom Henrique (Portugal), Cavalier of Vasa Orden (Sweden) and the Gran Cruz de Isabel la Católica (Spain). He was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

For 24 years he built his empire in his image to the point where world leaders had audiences with him, virtually begging for his attention. Paulo Freitas is a correspondent for Sky Sports based in Rio de Janeiro, and he agrees with Yallop’s description of Havelange as ‘The Sun King’: “He was indeed the most powerful man in sport,” he told me. But how did he do it?

“He expanded football and FIFA’s influence to Africa and Asia, while he also has support from Brazil and other South American countries, support not only from the football world but also from politicians. He used to have close contacts with many of those countries. He was often treated as a head of state in places like Saudi Arabia.”

There are two sides to his tale, although the lines become blurred depending on how deep you dig. The facts and figures are mind boggling – to have crafted the world game into the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become today is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the popularity of ‘the product’, but it certainly helped to have as obsessive a character at the helm as João Havelange. In Yallop’s book, the man himself recounted ‘8,760 days in office, 7,200 of which were spent away from home … 800 hours per year on planes … a total of 288 return flights from Rio to Zürich’.

His background as a sportsman formed part of his drive to organise and control; at the São Paulo Club Espéria he didn’t just shine as a water polo player, he also ran all the teams. “Havelange belongs to a class of men that no longer exists,” claimed Mario Amato, president of the National Industrial Confederation, in Yallop’s book. “He’s one of those men with so much charisma that you want to touch him to see if he’s real; he’s an idol.”

Being idolised is something that came naturally to Havelange, but it was backed up by an indefatigable work ethic. Before his father passed away with a brain haemorrhage with João still a teenager, Havelange Jr. was implored to succeed by the man who he claimed was his best friend – Havelange Sr.

Joseph Faustin Godefroid had graduated from the University of Liège as a mining engineer before spending ten years as a lecturer at the university of San Marcos in Lima, Peru. Before the end of his contract he returned to Belgium, where he had been one of the founding members of Standard Liège, to marry Juliette, and on his way back to South America he missed his intended passage across the Atlantic on the ill-fated Titanic. After working for United States Steel in Rio, Joseph built up an impressive portfolio of consultancy work, including for La Société Française des Munitions – an arms dealer – and as João looked on he was inspired to replicate his father’s business success.

The importance of personal relationships was also imprinted on his psyche by his parents: “My parents always stressed during my upbringing the value of friends,” he told Yallop.

“That friendship was something to be respected and maintained. Respect was yet another principle that I learned during my early years. Whether that of the most important people at the top of the ladder or those at the bottom who need help with their problems … Honesty was [something] which I have respected throughout my life in managing several businesses. I have also followed this principle in carrying out my mandate as head of FIFA.”

The last value Havelange espouses is something that many people have taken exception to in recent years, especially following recent revelations by Andrew Jennings and Yallop. Jennings has written about the criminal links to Havelange’s business dealings in Brazil, and the ethos of corruption that was subsequently formed at FIFA. The publications even sparked a proposal for a parliamentary committee of inquiry (CPI) in 2011, and another a year later spearheaded by Romário, but neither gathered enough political support, most likely as a result of the sheer influence of Havelange.

What Foul! did achieve was highlight the murky connections Havelange had built up to the criminal fraternity, in particular with the infamous Castor de Andrade, who ran the illegal but popular Jogo do Bicho, a lottery using pictures of animals played on the streets of Rio.

Andrade offered the then-president of FIFA a VIP box for the Carnival reputedly worth over $17,000, while Havelange returned the favour by writing a character reference in defence of the racketeer, despite a special operation in 1994 discovering Andrade’s ledger book which revealed an astonishing network of bribed policemen, politicians, governors and officials from all walks of life.

Andrade had been implicated in dealing cocaine and murdering ‘inconvenient’ figures in society, but due to his wide-reaching influence hadn’t been charged. This air of being untouchable, and therefore unhindered in his pursuit of ultimate power, was clearly something that Havelange would have admired in private. Denise Frossard, the judge who finally jailed Andrade, described the gangster in Omertà as a chillingly practical man: “He wasn’t a soccer lover. He was pragmatic. The connections to these cultural icons was useful for him – and that’s it. It was just business, nothing else. He was a dangerous criminal.”

Euan Marshall is a Glaswegian journalist based in Rio, and he views Havelange as an example of the system in which he found himself. “Essentially, Havelange is one of the many Brazilian political bigwigs who only cares about power,” he told me. “As an example, during Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, he really cuddled up to the military generals. This, despite the fact that he and his family were very close to Juscelino Kubitschek, former president of Brazil who was exiled by the military, he had no problem turning his back on them to retain his power.”

Such single-minded determination and ruthless prioritisation of personal relationships may grate against the western moral conscience, but without question it was the most effective way of surviving in Brazilian football politics. “What he did was put military officials in key roles in football; a notorious torturer was their head of security, and in the 1978 World Cup, their coach was army captain Cláudio Coutinho,” says Marshall.

Havelange didn’t restrict himself to associating with domestic lawbreakers. The run up to the 1978 World Cup was riddled with reports – later proven to be genuine – of mass human rights violations by the ruling junta. Originally, General Omar Carlos Actis had been appointed as the organiser, but he had refused to upgrade the stadia or the TV service to show games in colour, which Jennings claimed angered Havelange as he wanted to draw in sponsors with a more attractive platform to part with their money. When Actis was mysteriously assassinated, his successor Admiral Carlos Lacoste was alleged to have given the order. A year later, Lacoste ended up as a FIFA vice president.

Havelange’s business relationships with two men in particular opened a Pandora’s Box of marketing opportunities. An Englishman, a German and Belgian-Brazilian; not the start of an awkward joke, but the triumvirate that ignited the onslaught of a frantic lucrative rush to maximise the profit that could be made from the game.

Croydon-raised Patrick Nally spotted the potential to exploit the global appeal of football at the end of the 1960s, and approached Havelange with a view to assisting him in his bid to gain the presidency of FIFA. Sir Stanley Rous, Havelange’s predecessor, had been seen as the model of virtue during his tenure, rewriting the laws of the game at FIFA bequest, but, like many of the game’s administrators at the time, had developed an insularity that rejected change.

Many confederations were dissatisfied with the balance of power in the game – the World Cup finals in 1966 only offered one place to the whole of Africa and Asia – and Rous simply didn’t see the bigger picture. Havelange toured many of the disaffected nations, often with the much-loved and respected Brazilian team spearheaded by Pelé, on a massive charm offensive promising a greater share of the pie in return for crucial votes to help elect him. It worked.

Once elected, there was one simple factor that was needed to keep the show going: money. Enter Horst Dassler, chairman of Bavaria-based sportswear giants Adidas. Dassler was as much an opportunist as Nally was, and wanted to thrust his brand onto the world stage using football as the vehicle. In return for exclusive rights to sell and advertise Adidas products at World Cups, Dassler would have to offer large sums to FIFA. The $8 million needed to stage the 1978 World Cup in Argentina came from the American soft drinks company Coca-Cola and Adidas, all presided over by the new Brazilian supremo with Belgian ancestry – a truly global World Cup, in more than one sense. It was a simply a mutually beneficial arrangement that ensured the companies enjoyed the biggest stage of all to increase sales and build its image, while the financial health of world football could flourish.

While on the outside there didn’t seem to be much untoward about the deal for Adidas and Coca-Cola to sponsor the event, it opened up an avenue for Havelange and his associates to line their pockets on the side. Following the success of the 1978 tournament from a sponsorship perspective, Nally and Dassler set up SMPI, which specialised in offering all-inclusive sponsorship packages to multi-national corporations.

In reality, it also offered FIFA officials, including Havelange’s former son-in-law and president of the CBF Ricardo Teixeira, an opportunity to syphon some of the funds off into personal accounts based in Liechtenstein.

The scandal is now well documented after the series of investigations by journalists and ethics committees, with the court of public opinion in uproar at the flagrant abuse of power, but as Tim Vickery argued in his column for Australian media network SBS, context is important. “The European, and particularly the English, press go on and on about corruption scandals,” he wrote. “There is much to applaud here. The noblest part of journalism is that which digs into stories and asks questions which make those in power uncomfortable … because the corruption in football is shocking and indefensible. But it can also be seen as the – wholly undesirable – sub-product of the global success of the game.”

This inevitability about the scale of the financial muscle of modern football is significant for two reasons. Firstly, the landslide of commercial opportunities triggered by Havelange, Dassler and Nally’s opportunism has enriched the European game – and in particular the Premier League – beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

The new Premier League TV deal worth over £5 billion is one example of the commercialisation of the ‘product’ whose birth could arguably be traced back to the agreement struck between the trio. Although Dassler forced Nally out in the early 1980s, his new International Sport and Leisure (ISL) partnership with Japanese firm Dentsu continued along the same vein. At the turn of the millennium, however, other corporations realised the enormous potential in exclusive sponsorship deal with FIFA and began creating competition in the bidding process. ISL were forced to commit wildly above their means and ended up accruing debts of over $300 million, with inevitable closure following in 2001.

The same media who lambast the corruption involved with these deals enjoy seeing players the calibre of Yaya Touré on wages of more than £200,000 a week. “To attack the corruption without understanding the source is to miss an important part of the point,” continues Vickery. “The Rous-era FIFA did not suffer from this scale of [financial] corruption because the game did not generate anything like today’s tempting sums.”

On the other hand, the fact that the boom was always likely to happen at some point detracts slightly from Havelange’s achievements; Yallop maintains that instead of being as revolutionary a mogul as he claims, his greed at hoarding bribes for his own personal gain actually held him back from negotiating even greater deals for FIFA. Whether or not this is true, denying him all credit for the development of the game would be churlish.

Before he arrived at FIFA, his role in preparing the victorious 1958 side at the World Cup in Sweden as president of the CBF was instrumental; alongside Paulo Machado de Carvalho he devised a full technical staff including psychologists, doctors, and even dentists. When you consider that England didn’t even travel with a doctor, you can appreciate the effect his visionary approach took, and it set a precedent that all modern teams now follow.

His election to the presidency was based on a number of promises to expand the World Cup, introduce more tournaments for age group teams and women, and increase the earnings in the game. He has delivered on all of these areas, even if he did accept illegal payments from people who put him in his position of power; the second tournament of his tenure, Spain 82, was enlarged to 24 teams, while his final tournament in charge was the first to host 32 teams.

Under his reign the under-20 and under-17 World Cups were established, as well as the Women’s World Cup, all of which could be staged in developing countries to kick-start their infrastructure upgrades.

As for FIFA itself, Havelange revolutionised the organisation into a slick business, as the author of Futebol Nation – The Story of Brazil Through Soccer, David Goldblatt, points out. “Havelange brought to the institution the unique imprimatur of Brazil’s ruling elite: imperious cordiality, ruthless clientelistic politics and a self-serving blurring of the public and private realms, for institutional and personal benefit. Once in place, he set about revolutionising FIFA, turning it from a tiny amateurish federation into one of the world’s most powerful international organisations.”

For all his supposed moral fortitude, Rous just didn’t have the cutting edge necessary to take advantage of the tidal wave of change that was happening around him. There was still, incredibly, a lingering sense of being the moral leaders of world football in England around this time, even if the Brazilian teams that captured three of the previous four World Cups made the world fall in love with their joie de vivre on the pitch. In reality, it was a refusal to move with the times, as Vickery describes: “The time had come to take the running of global football out of the hands of an absurd outdated Colonel Blimp. After the Second World War Europe had over half the FIFA membership. By 1974, it had less than a third. It was a post-colonial era, full of new, independent countries. The world had changed, but Rous was unable to change with it.”

Maybe he had been guilty of not being progressive enough, but at least he could point to his ethical fortitude – couldn’t he? A former referee and schoolteacher, Rous certainly held rules and conformity in high esteem, but his history in football’s top job was far from clean. “There was unrest over the support Rous gave apartheid South Africa, long after the country had been kicked out of the international Olympic movement,” adds Vickery. “This is an option which looked bad at the time and seems worse now – and shows there were other types of corruption as well as financial.” Rous had been worried that if FIFA turned its back on South Africa the development of the game there would suffer irrevocably. Proposals to send all-white and all-black teams to alternate World Cups were quickly scotched, but the stain on the organisation’s reputation had been well and truly struck.

Even more shocking was FIFA’s decision under Rous to stage the Chile-USSR World Cup playoff in Santiago shortly after General Augusto Pinochet’s deadly coup.

The ground was being used to carry out mass torture and executions, with thousands being imprisoned; just to stage the game, prisoners had to be relocated, while the stadium had to be cleaned to erase outward evidence of the bloodshed taking place inside its very walls. The Soviets refused to travel, and farcical scenes ensued with Chile taking the pitch with no opponents to face in a brazen attempt to cover over the actions of the horrendously brutal regime.

Havelange’s legacy is a matter of perspective. Without question, his personal drive dragged the game into the modern world, and opened up the governance of the sport to develop the game on a global stage. He delivered on a number of key election promises, and was canny enough to realise the importance of appealing to the wide spectrum of the football family.

“His legacy is as the pioneer who set not only football but all of sport on the road to televisual riches,” concludes Radnedge. “To whatever extent he may be considered corrupt by 21st century, western-European standards, he would respond that what other people think is irrelevant – all that mattered was that he was loyal to the world in which he grew up and fought his way up in.”

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint