It's Time for a FIFA Revolt

Rob Hughes
Date Published: 
International Herald Tribune

LONDON: A letter to FIFA's extended family, the 8 vice presidents, 12 sitting members of the executive, 5 heads of continental confederations, 191 national associations and 1 billion folks the world over who care for soccer.

Greetings: And what do you have on your plate over Christmas? Might I suggest you make room for insurrection.

It may not be seasonable, but I seriously suggest that your gift to soccer would be to challenge, while time permits, the rule of the FIFA president. João Havelange, the Brazilian now in his 21st year in that position, represents a threat to the game through his abuse of power.

In New York, two month ago, Havelange took it upon himself to rearrange the governing committees of FIFA, sacking members at his whim, appointing others, brooking no discussion. Some of you, the vice presidents and the executive members, sat feebly by. No one, it seemed, had the courage to lay a hand on the autocrat's arm and remind him of article 20 of the FIFA statutes: "The president shall have an ordinary vote and, when votes are equal, the casting vote."

There never was a vote. At the very end of the executive committee meeting, Havelange presented his typed list of new appointees and removals, then declared the meeting over.

Almost at once, but almost alone, Jack Warner, the Trinidadian who heads CONCACAF - FIFA's North and Central American confederation - spoke of deals done behind people's backs. He was swatted aside. The committeemen trooped out without complaint or explanation. Even those who were fired were reduced to whispering that their "crime" had been to suggest early in the year that it might be time to replace their 78-year-old overlord.

Until the last few days, Havelange could say humbug to everyone. Then, in Rome, Lennart Johansson, UEFA's president, threatened that unless Havelange consults Europe's 49 soccer- playing nations in the future, UEFA could boycott the next World Cup, in France in 1998.

In Kuala Lumpur, 41 Asian countries will vote Wednesday on a resolution by Peter Velappan, their general secretary, calling on Havelange to account for his unconstitutional behavior.

"We need more enlightened leadership from FIFA if we are to prevent world football slipping into autocracy," says Velappan. "Anything FIFA does by the back door creates problems for the credibility of our leadership."

Well said, sir. Bravely said in a world of yea- sayers who, for a quiet Christmas, a quiet life, merely nod to Havelange's law.

Velappan might consider that he has little to lose. He, along with the general secretaries of Africa and North America, were removed from FIFA committees. But not only they. Paolo Casarin, the Italian who was a close ally of FIFA's general secretary, Sepp Blatter in cleaning up the game at this summer's World Cup, was axed, along with others, from FIFA's committee overseeing referees.

Johansson cites the switch of Antonio Matarrese, the president of the Italian federation, from the finance committee (which suited his training as a commercial and tax adviser) to the technical committee (where his knowledge is patchy).

Now Havelange might have answers. He might think it wise at this time to spare Matarrese undue suspicion should the accounts be questioned. Similarly, Havelange is cunning enough to see flaws in Johansson's own leadership. For a start, the European president quietly backed down in Las Vegas last Christmas, when Havelange single-handedly barred Pelé from the World Cup draw ceremony.

Johansson swears he has just penned a letter to Havelange "that was a declaration of war" - but didn't post it because his UEFA executive felt it unwise. But, to show that Europe's wrath is roused, Johansson swears: "If FIFA does not heed our complaint next time it makes appointments" - a year and a half hence - "then it will be impossible for UEFA to stay within the FIFA organization."

WOW! I CAN SEE Havelange, in Rio de Janeiro, quaking about threats 18 months away, threats Johansson could never keep. To withdraw European countries from the profits and glory of a World Cup would need their sanction - unless Johansson, too, thinks he has dictatorial powers.

Indeed, Havelange can waft Johansson aside like a king clearing the air of cigar smoke simply by asking if Johansson sought UEFA authorization for his threats in Rome.

So until someone coordinates the five continents, until senior FIFA members inform the president that adherence to electoral processes is de rigueur, he will go imperiously on. And he will, as many of you surely know, end up installing Ricardo Teixeira, his son-in-law and recently "elected" vice president of FIFA, as his successor.

The heads of the five confederations apparently feel impotent because, on April 5 in Zurich, they signed an agreement endorsing Havelange as the sole candidate for a sixth consecutive term as FIFA's president. But is that a mandate for arranging his own dynasty at the expense of meritocracy?

Havelange admittedly built up FIFA's house to unprecedented prosperity. But he is an old man, not a god. His rule has always been riddled with self-interest. Now, if he threatens to pull down that house, then you, the members, must not let gratitude stand in the way of duty.

I commend to you "90 Years of Fifa," published last June, in which it was written: "Dr. Havelange aims at consensus and not polemics in debate, listening and reasoning carefully."

Either make him listen, or tell him his time is up.