From Rous with love

As a 32-team World Cup kicks off in Russia bolstered by Chinese sponsorship, four years ahead of a trip to Qatar, it’s fair to say things have come a long way in the century since football’s global governing body was kept alive after the Great War by a Dutch banker working at his own expense from his personal office.

In 1918 the first World Cup was still twelve years away, and Cornelis August ‘Carl Anton’ Wilhelm Hirschman, for that was his name, probably did not think he was nursing into existence a global soccer competition that now has an estimated cost of more than $11 billion. Indeed, that revolution was a good few decades away.

Whatever anyone’s view of the late FIFA-president João Havelange, there is no doubt he was one of the key administrators – along with the International Olympic Committee’s Juan Antonio Samaranch and athletics’ Primo Nebiolo – who helped transform sport into the commercial behemoth it is today. And if anyone embodies the Anglo-Saxon amateur idealism that was replaced by the ruthless professionalism of the autocratic Latin trio, even more than our friend Carl Anton (who did have a trade after all, which seems a bit distasteful), it is Havelange’s immediate predecessor at FIFA Sir Stanley Rous.

Born in the nineteenth century, and an NCO in the First World War, Rous was an amateur goalkeeper who had qualified as a Football League referee by the age of thirty-two. Having reached the top by taking charge of the 1934 FA Cup final, he then retired to concentrate on administration.

In 1938 Rous produced the first revision of the Laws of the Game (making him very much the Archbishop Cranmer of modern football) and standardized the ‘diagonal’ positioning system through which the three standard soccer referees combine to oversee at the game.

But Rous’s key contribution was in football politics. The secretary of the FA from 1934, he took the previously-estranged British associations back into FIFA in 1946 and three years later earning a knighthood for his part in organizing the 1948 Olympics. These were days when western Europe was the capital of sport, and in 1961 Sir Stanley became FIFA president, the third Englishman to hold the role (there’d also been two Frenchmen and a Belgian).


The British Empire may have been crumbling, but FIFA was still a corner of England under Rous. A fan of Robert Louis Stevenson and Stanley Holloway (as revealed when he went on Desert Island Discs), Sir Stanley had little interest in commercializing the game or in opening up the European- (and to a lesser extent, South American-)dominated World Cup to Africa or Asia – in the 1966 finals in England those two continents were to share one place among 16.

Certainly, the way things were (allegedly and not so allegedly) done under successors were anathema to Rous. Journalist Martin Samuel wrote:

I once asked him if he had ever been offered a bribe, ‘A bribe? A bribe?!’ he retorted as if playing the role of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘Anybody offering me a bribe would be very foolish. They would never be involved in football again. In South America I was once asked by an ambitious football club official what it would cost to get on to the FIFA committee. I told him his £200 fare to Zurich and the support of at least 60 per cent of the delegates.’

However, his old-school attitudes also made him vulnerable. Not just his reluctance to open up the World Cup to non-western nations, but his desire to keep within the FIFA family one association in particular – that of South Africa. The South African FA (FASA) were expelled in 1961 for their backing of apartheid, but Sir Stanley got them reinstated two years later. ‘If South Africa applies segregation in soccer,’ he was quoted as saying, ‘that is its own concern.’

The following year at the FIFA Congress in Tokyo, when there was a move to expel South Africa, Rous spoke of ‘remarkable development for all those wishing to play association football’ in the country. In the end, rather than being expelled, the FASA was suspended, despite their most reasonable offer to enter a white team in the 1966 World Cup and a black squad four years later.

African teams also withdrew en masse from the 1966 World Cup due to the qualification allocations – in the end the Africa-Asia-Oceania section consisted of a single two-legged match between Australia and North Korea. There was enough resentment afoot that the Rous-fronted European domination of FIFA could be in danger, even more so when Sir Stanley rejected proposals to expand the World Cup finals to 24 nations and also backed Chile when the USSR refused to travel for a 1973 play-off in Santiago in a stadium that Augusto Pinochet had used as a prison camp.

Rous’s position was indeed in deep peril. Brazilian businessman and sports administrator Havelange – an Olympic swimmer and water polo player in his youth – challenged Rous at the 1974 FIFA Congress, and while Sir Stanley was confident his position was safe, his rival did something the Englishman wouldn’t deign to do, and campaigned.

To cut a long story short, Havelange visited eighty countries and arranged with sponsors to cover the travel costs to Frankfurt for delegates from nations who would never usually be in a position to attend a congress. Using resentment at Rous’s indulgence of South Africa, dangling the carrot of extra World Cup places, and promising to increase FIFA’s income and use it to support member nations all over the world, the Brazilian had stolen a march on the Englishman.artwork-rous-3

Three weeks before the vote, Rous told European officials in Edinburgh: ‘Vote for me because it is Europe versus South America and we want Europe to retain the leadership of football.’ It was too late. Havelange won 68 votes to 52 in a final ballot against Rous. FIFA was suddenly a very different body, and before long football was a very different game.

Where Sir Stanley had worked from home, occasionally visiting FIFA’s small Zurich HQ, Havelange quickly set in motion the expansion of the governing body, monetizing the World Cup as well as adding youth and women’s competitions, and vastly increasing the size of the administration itself. His example was followed in the IOC when Spain’s Samaranch replaced Lord Killanin as president; international sport was no longer the preserve of (ideally British, or perhaps French) gentleman amateurs.

On the day Rous lost his election, he said: ‘The trends in world football are not too pleasing at the moment, and after today’s meeting I will be better out of the way.’ It’s unlikely his view had changed by the time he died in 1986, though his determination to stick to the old ways probably alienated enough of the electorate for Havelange to entice to do things very differently.

A World Cup of thirty-two nations in Russia, or of as many as forty-eight in Qatar, might well be causing a certain amount of rotation within Rous’s final West Midlands resting place in the Holy Trinity Church, Lickey (where Cramner’s Book of Common Prayer is still used on the third Sunday of every month). However, at least FIFA still recommends his ‘diagonal’ refereeing system.


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