How João Havelange used Africa to change the face of world football

How João Havelange used Africa to change the face of world football

Between 1961 and 2016, only three people held football’s highest position, that of FIFA President. Sir Stanley Rous, João Havelange and Sepp Blatter, the exclusive three, oversaw the transition of football from a Euro-centric colonial-inspired game, to a multi-billion pound, global industry. Though football has gone through immense changes during the 55 years these individuals were at the helm, it is the 1974 presidential election that pinpoints the exact moment that changed the direction of football.

It was not the two traditional continental powerhouses of football, Europe and South America, that were responsible for this change, but the continent of Africa and in particular the Apartheid regime in South Africa which transformed the game forever.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) was established in 1956. Initially the federation consisted of only four members, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Africa; these four countries were, at the time, the only independent nations on the continent. The rest of Africa was still under the influence of Colonialism, primarily under the control of European nations. However, despite the limited number of members, CAF voted to expel South Africa a year later, due to the fact it made its’ Apartheid intentions clear from the outset, stating that they would only be sending either an all-white team or an all-black team to the first African Cup of Nations in 1957.

The election of Englishman Stanley Rous in 1961 to the position of FIFA president maintained the European dominance at the head of football’s governing body. Rous was a remnant of the Corinthian amateur ideal, believing that politics and sport should never mix and that sport should not be used as a tool to promote political ideals. This was a stance that would haunt his entire presidency and would eventually be his downfall in the 1974 election.

In the 1958 and 1962 World Cups there was no African representation – the 16-team tournaments consisted of only European and South American teams, albeit with a strong European bias at both editions. For the 1966 tournament, CAF lobbied Rous and FIFA to be allowed one automatic place at the tournament. This was denied and Africa and Asia were forced into a playoff scenario to secure a solitary place. This resulted in a pan-African boycott of the 1966 World Cup qualifying tournament. Ironically, the top goalscorer of the 1966 World Cup was the only African-born player in the tournament, Portugal’s Eusébio.

During this time, South African football was experiencing an internal power struggle for the control of football within its country between the Football Association South Africa (FASA) and the South African Soccer Federation (SASF). FASA was the well-established body; it was seen as a white dominated organisation but permitted non-white affiliation. It did, however, prevent the playing of fixtures between teams of differing ethnic and racial groups, inferring that a white team could not participate against a black team, nor could a team be made up of mixed races. This was the organisation officially recognised by FIFA.

The SASF body was established to recognise the footballing interests of ‘all’ Africans, including black and mixed-race footballers, an amount that totalled 80 percent of the country’s population. Despite the obvious and intense differences between the organisations, SASF continuously tried to form an alliance with FASA, who would only accept a potential merger if they kept ‘all voting rights on the National Committee’. This was clearly unacceptable to SASF.

Upon Rous’s election, he immediately made it clear that he favoured FASA as the country’s leading football authority, and believed that SASF were merely using football as a means to promote its own political opinions and voice. Rous eventually agreed to send a FIFA delegation to South Africa in 1963 to investigate and assess football in the nation. The fact that Rous was to head-up the investigation did not go down well with the members of CAF. The FIFA delegation’s conclusion fully backed and supported the white dominated body of FASA, a decision which confirmed to all of Africa that, in their opinion, FIFA was a racist organisation and a visible supporter of the Apartheid regime.

The African delegates within FIFA consistently discussed the Apartheid situation. They always ensured it was brought to the attention of the FIFA executive at every opportunity, much to the chagrin of Rous. Other minority countries, most notably within the Asian federation, supported this consistent promotion of the issue.

FASA was eventually suspended during an ill-tempered executive meeting at the 1964 FIFA Congress in Tokyo. However, despite the ill-feeling Rous’s visible support for FASA had engendered across Africa, he continued to campaign for their re-admittance to FIFA right up until the 1974 election. What Africa needed was a ‘champion’ who would listen to their pleas for recognition and fight against the Apartheid regime. Enter João Havelange.

Havelange was a former Olympic swimmer who participated in the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and again in 1956, this time as part of the Brazilian water polo team. By 1958 he was the president of the Federation of Brazilian Sports (CBD) and in 1963 became an elected member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Alongside his meteoric rise through sports administration, he was also a successful businessman within his home country.

Read  |  João Havelange: the iron hand in an iron glove

If Rous represented the past with regards to international sport and its antiquated ideals of sport in its purest form, then Havelange represented the future, where sport has the power to influence governments and FIFA presidents are accorded the same status as Heads of State. Havelange once stated in a interview during his presidency: “I’ve been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin. I’ve been to Poland with their president. During the 1990 World Cup in Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times. When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion.  Do you think a Head of State will spare that much time to just anyone? That’s respect … I can talk to any president, but they will be talking to a president too on an equal basis.”

It was this perception and vision which resulted in Havelange deciding to run for power in the 1974 FIFA elections. Once he had decided to challenge Rous for the presidency, Havelange embarked on a campaign that was in stark contrast to Rous, who believed that his past record as FIFA president would be enough to see him re-elected. Havelange needed to galvanise the African and Asian nations if he was to triumph over the European confederation and the countries which, until then, had dictated who was elected to the throne.

Immediately the issue of Apartheid in South Africa and Africa’s marginalisation within the global game was used as a tool to appeal to the African nations that by this time had seen CAF’s membership increase from four member countries to 37, most of whom had recently gained independence from colonial rule. Joining CAF and FIFA was a relatively cheap way of demonstrating a country’s new found independence as well as playing an equal part within a larger global institution. Being a member of FIFA gave the emerging nations a sense of belonging and legitimised their existence. Havelange fully supported this sense of African growth and he provided a focal point for them to demonstrate their growing influence.

Since its inception, FIFA has maintained a one nation, one vote policy when deciding its presidents; as such no country was more important than any other. England’s vote carried as much weight as Ethiopia’s. There were 37 African votes to be won at the 1974 election and Havelange had the perfect manifesto to ensure he won as may of them as possible.

From 1971 to 1974, Havelange embarked on a campaign that promoted African football and its potential to have an influence on football at the highest level. Furthermore, he made a promise to expand the World Cup from 16 finalists to 24, guaranteeing Africa increased automatic places. However, the most important promise of all was the permanent exclusion of South Africa and their Apartheid regime from FIFA if they voted for Havelange in the elections.

Alongside the manifesto and the promises, Havelange travelled to as many of the member nations as possible looking to canvas support. Always having his photo taken, and always-remembering people’s names; it was all about the personal touch. Whilst Havelange was not as well known as Rous in some of the more remote African footballing outposts, his frequent companion was. It was the world’s greatest player, Pelé, who accompanied Havelange on many visits, as did the Brazilian national team in order to play friendly exhibition games. Havelange had the ability to deliver what the African nations wanted to see, and Pele was the biggest draw in world football.

Not only was Havelange generous with the Brazilian team and Pelé’s time, he was also generous with money. Whose money exactly remains a mystery, but Havelange secured enough funds to fully subsidise a number of African delegates to attend the FIFA Congress in Frankfurt to ensure they were able to vote. Many newly independent African nations were struggling financially and they could not been seen spending money on excursions to Europe just to vote in an election that may not change the status quo  Havelange, unlike Rous, identified how crucial the African vote would be and funded many delegates’ attendance. For most, it was the first time these men had left their country. Havelange truly promoted himself as a man of the African people.

Right up until the day of the vote, Rous was maintaining his conservative right-wing stance over FIFA’s policy choices, as well as his style. The entire election is perfectly summed up by a question asked first to Rous and shortly after to Havelange by Mawad Wade, the Secretary of the Senegal Football Association at a Cairo meeting prior to the election. “I asked him (Rous), ‘If you are elected, can you keep South Africa out of FIFA until Apartheid goes down?’ He said to me, ‘I can’t promise you because I follow my country, the United Kingdom’. I said to him, ‘In this case we will never vote for you’. I asked the same question to Havelange and he replied, ‘So long as I am in charge and Apartheid still exists, South Africa will never come into FIFA’.”

With that, the face of football changed forever. Gone was the colonial rule and the paying of lip-service to nations deemed not good enough to participate in World Cup tournaments. In its place, a commercialised game, played around the world and beamed live into every household with a television, emerged.

Havelange went on to win the 1974 election and remained as the head of FIFA unopposed for 24 years. The World Cup was expanded to 24 teams for the 1982 World Cup in Spain as Africa received an extra place at that World Cup, but Algeria’s elimination in the opening round remains one of the most controversial incidents in World Cup history.

Football had for so long been seen as the preserve of Europe and South America, with disproportionate places for both continents in the World Cup finals, continuous hosting of the tournament from 1930 to 1990 and FIFA committees and presidents dominated by white men. Europe believed that it could control football across the world, however history will show it was the repressed colonised nations of Africa that truly had the power to change football forever.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

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