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Horst Dassler: The man behind Adidas and the murky worlds of football

Horst Dassler, the son of Adolf Dassler, the founder of Adidas, was the visionary behind the rise of Joao Havelange as the immortal emperor of football.

“I have come to sell a product called football.” These were the words of the newly elected President of FIFA, Jean Marie Faustin de Godefroid Havelange. Joao Havelange, as he was known, had dethroned Sir Stanley Rous and had reached the summit after the 1974 elections. The Brazilian had outmanoeuvred his English counterpart and came out on top to everyone’s surprise.

He would then go on to rule the world for the next couple of decades in a manner which was unprecedented. But behind all this was a 38-year-old German entrepreneur who was set to become the most powerful figure in the world of international sports.

The rise of Horst Dassler

Horst was the first one to appreciate the commercial opportunities of having “friends” and controlling the workings of sports governing bodies. He started to use Adidas to extend his influence throughout the world. After establishing friendships, Horst engineered elections in a way to obtain de facto control. He then used it to enhance the value of his sportswear empire.

Adidas
Horst Dassler, the son of the founder of Adidas, Adolf Dassler.

Patrick Nally was a key weapon in the Horst armoury. Nally, the co-founder of West Nally Group, worked alongside the German in the development of something which would lead to the creation of an entirely new industry. The pair coined the term and the idea of sports sponsorship and any developments in the coming decades could be traced back to Dassler and Nally.

The timely hand of an Macedonian goalkeeper

Horst Dassler was seated in his hotel room in Frankfurt a day ahead of the FIFA Presidential elections in 1974. The scion exuberated confidence in his manner. His man, Sir Stanley Rous, was set to be re-elected as the head of football’s governing body. But things suddenly went pear-shaped. One of his invitees had told him that he was backing the wrong man.

Apparently, Joao Havelange was the current favourite. Blagoje Vidinic, a former Yugoslavian goalkeeper, then went on to hand Dassler the room number of Havelange. The Brazilian, fortunately, was also stationed in the same hotel. An hour later, thanks to Vidinic, Horst returned with a bottle of champagne and a long-lasting friendship with the man who was set to rule the sport in the coming years.

Adidas
Sir Stanley Rous (L) was outsmarted by his Brazilian counterpart Joao Havelange (R).
Photo: Medium

The plan that change the sport forever

Joan Havelange, after being elected as the 7th President of FIFA came up with an idea which would fill the treasury for years to come. He, along with Horst Dassler and his marketing protege, Patrick Nally, drafted a plan. It essentially had four principles, as described by sportswriter David Goldblatt.

  • Only the biggest companies would be allowed to officially sponsor the World Cup.
  • Only one company from each sector would get sponsorship rights. Which meant one company from the soft drinks industry, one from the credit card industry and so on.
  • FIFA would have complete control of selling these rights. The host nations had to comply with it even as they financed the arrangements for the tournament.
  • FIFA would not be administering everything by themselves but had to use an intermediary.
Adidas
David Goldblatt spoke about Horst Dassler and Patrick Nelly’s plan in his book.
Photo: davidstephengoldblatt.com

Horst Dassler set up a company called International Sports and Leisure (ISL) which was to act as the intermediary. FIFA sold the sponsorship and TV rights to ISL. They, in turn, went in search of a company willing to take them up. Given that the tournament expenses were borne by the host nations, the money from such sponsorship deals ultimately landed into the pockets of the people in power. A part of it was also used to develop the sport in areas which required attention.

The fall of ISL

Horst Dassler died in 1987 at the early age of 51 and it seemed to unsettled Havelange. After the Adidas director passed away, ISL struggled to estimate the value of the rights they bought from FIFA and sold on. By the year 2000, the company had a loss of over $800M.

In September, ISL negotiated a discount deal with a Brazil broadcaster if they paid their World Cup rights fee early. TV Globo came through with over $80M but rather than being directed into a FIFA account it was redirected to an ISL account. FIFA caught wind of this side-deal which signalled the end of the company.ISL was sent into bankruptcy in May 2001 and was ultimately liquidated.

Adidas
The June 5, 1996 file photo shows then FIFA President Joao Havelange of Brazil, left, and then FIFA General Secretary Joseph Blatter of Switzerland attending the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Congress in Kuala Lumpur.
Photo: Daily Mail

Author’s Take

Horst Dassler was undeniably one of the most influential figures of the sport without holding any official position. The former Adidas supremo chanced the way the game functioned in an administrative way. His associate, Joao Havelange, handed over the baton in 1998 to Sepp Blatter, another one of Horst Dassler’s proteges. But things didn’t end well for either of the men. The governing body came under investigation for corruption and both the names were dragged through the mud. Joao Havelange resigned as the honorary President in 2013 and later died in 2016 at the age.

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