Column: With Havelange gone, what about the past?

Wow, it must be fabulous being Joao Havelange.

This threatened to be a bear of a week for the man who was sporting royalty, with his aristocratic air and physique of the Olympic swimmer and water polo player he once was.

In 48 years at the International Olympic Committee, Havelange shook the hands of more princes, presidents and other VIPs than most of us have had hot dinners.

He also led world football for 24 years — the transformational era from 1974-98 when the sweat of legendary players like Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane was helping to turn the much-loved game into the global mega-business it is now.

Havelange did some icky things, too — like visiting Nigeria just before it hanged playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other anti-government activists in 1995. For that, he made no apologies. "I went out there to look at the terrain, installations and hotels," he said.

He does not want to see his life's work ruined by pesky reporters, certainly not those who allege Havelange took a $1 million kickback in his last full year as president of football's governing body, FIFA.

So Havelange sent a letter. Rather than face his peers at the IOC, who, to their credit, felt obliged to examine evidence unearthed and handed over by reporter Andrew Jennings and the BBC, Havelange last week wrote to IOC President Jacques Rogge that he was resigning.

Old age. Imperfect health. Can't travel. Sure you understand. Bye-bye, Joao. Or something along those lines.

The original plan had been that the IOC executive board would deliberate on his case this Thursday. A two-year suspension, even possible expulsion, could have been on the cards.

That won't happen now. With Havelange on his way out, the IOC says it no longer has the power to investigate him.

Case closed.

Harry Houdini himself couldn't have timed this exit better. Others, at FIFA and the IOC, have taken this route in the past, too. Like Jack Warner, who quit as a FIFA vice president in June, ending its bribery investigation of him.

Only, in the real world, that's not how things work. The questions about corruption at FIFA, Havelange's fief for so long, will not stop here.

Admittedly, demanding answers from a 95-year-old man looks disrespectful, even vindictive given that the misdeeds allegedly happened 14 years ago and weren't a crime then in Switzerland, where the IOC and FIFA are based.

Arguing that Havelange should be called to account when, Rogge suggests, his health no longer allows him to travel regularly to IOC and FIFA meetings, also smacks of poor taste.

So be it. Because equally distasteful, and equally disrespectful to all those who love football, are the persistent allegations and mounting evidence that things have long been crooked at FIFA, that some football executives have been stuffing their pockets, allegedly using the sport as a personal piggy bank, creaming off kickbacks here, handing out bribes there.

With FIFA's reputation and credibility bottomed-out, Havelange's successor as president, Sepp Blatter, has belatedly launched a campaign to make the organization look whiter than white.

Blatter has got new committees drawing up reforms. He has brought Mark Pieth, a Swiss corporate governance expert with an impressive resume, on board.

Not a moment too early, Blatter has also promised to publish a 41-page Swiss court document that should name and shame some football officials who pocketed millions of dollars in World Cup-related kickbacks.

That was supposed to happen next week. But FIFA says someone — it did not say who — involved in this kickback scandal has now thrown a legal spanner in the works, indefinitely stalling the publication. Clearly, there are those who aren't prepared for a light to be shone on FIFA's past.

Lawmaker Roland Buechel, a member of the Swiss parliament's lower house, doesn't buy FIFA's explanation. He says it could publish the document now if it wished and is merely buying time by not doing so.

"The only thing that really counts is the past," he said Tuesday. "It is the past with the names and the past without the names that really has to be looked into. If they don't, they are not serious. It is not serious what they are doing now."

Likewise, draw your own conclusions from the fact that, for the IOC, the kickback claims leveled at Havelange by Jennings and the BBC last year were serious enough to warrant a new investigation. Yet, for FIFA, they were not.

Facing up to its past was the No. 1 recommendation that anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International made to FIFA. It suggested that forensic accountants and special investigators with anti-corruption experience be allowed to dig, to "demonstrate FIFA's commitment to a new era of openness and accountability."

Because that now looks unlikely, Transparency International walked away.

Simply put, it is impossible to buy into the idea that things really are changing at FIFA as long as anyone suspected of misdeeds in the past, as well as any who may have covered up for them, can still think to themselves, "Wow, it's fabulous being me."


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at