Havelange, whose parents were Belgian, attended boarding school in France and later earned a degree in law. An accomplished athlete, he was a member of the Brazilian swim team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and he later competed inwater polo at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Havelange headed a number of sports organizations before becoming a member of the Brazilian National Olympic Committee in 1955. He held the post until 1963, when he was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). During that time he also served as president (1958–73) of the Brazilian Sports Confederation (Confederação Brasileira de Desportos; later called Brazilian Football Confederation [Confederação Brasileira de Futebol]), an organization overseeing football in that country; during his tenure Brazil won three World Cups (1958, 1962, and 1970).
In June 1974 Havelange was elected president of FIFA, becoming the first non-European to hold the post. Approaching FIFA as a business, he transformed it into one of the largest sports organizations in the world. Under his guidance FIFA’s membership rose from 142 to 204 federations, and the World Cup expanded from 16 to 32 teams. He also oversaw the introduction of a number of tournaments, including a World Cup for women (1991). In addition, Havelange negotiated television and marketing deals that were valued at billions of dollars. In 1998 he stepped down as FIFA president and was succeeded by Joseph S. (Sepp) Blatter.
While filled with landmark accomplishments, Havelange’s career as a sports administrator was also fraught with controversy. In 1999 it was reported that he had accepted lavish gifts from Dutch Olympic officials in a failed attempt to secure the 1992 Olympic Games for Amsterdam. An IOC ethics committee announced in June 2011 that it was investigating an accusation that Havelange had, during his FIFA presidency, accepted a $1 million bribe from a since-defunct sports-marketing company to retain it as FIFA’s sole marketer. He resigned from the IOC in December 2011, which prompted the ethics committee to close its investigation shortly before it was to announce Havelange’s punishment (which was widely reported to have been a two-year suspension).