* Fans and residents want Havelange name stripped from venue
* Push for new name bolstered after court chronicled bribes
By Andrew Downie
SÃO PAULO, July 18 (Reuters) - Add another headache to the construction delays, cost overruns and overall unease about Brazil’s sports infrastructure as it gears up to host the World Cup and Olympics later this decade: an embarrassing name on one of the country’s marquee stadiums.
The João Havelange Stadium in Rio de Janeiro was supposed to honor the man who for decades towered over Brazilian sport - first as head of the country’s national soccer federation, later as a member of the International Olympic Committee, and for 24 years as the head of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body.
It’s bad enough the stadium, in service since the 2007 Pan American games, doesn’t meet the specifications demanded by FIFA for matches when Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup.
But now, after recent court documents confirmed longtime bribery allegations surrounding Havelange and his disgraced former son in law, the stadium is the subject of fierce debate among fans and others who are pushing for a name change before it hosts the Olympic track and field events in 2016.
“We don’t want the most modern stadium in South America to carry this stain,” said Rogerio Lessa Benemond, one of those campaigning for a name change to shield Botafogo, the Rio team he supports, from embarrassment. Botafogo plays at the stadium under a 20-year lease.
“We’ve always been against Havelange’s name on the stadium because he doesn’t represent Botafogo,” Benemond added, “but our opposition has taken on a new lease of life with these accusations.”
Court documents leaked in Switzerland last week confirmed longstanding accusations that Havelange and his associates had accepted bribes in exchange for favors from FIFA during the 1990s.
In the documents, Swiss prosecutors said Havelange in March 1997 received a kickback of 1.5 million Swiss francs from ISL, a now-defunct sports marketing company that sold the broadcast rights to World Cup games. Ricardo Teixeira, Havelange’s then son-in-law and head of the Brazilian soccer federation until 2011, took 12.7 million francs, according to the documents.
A criminal case against the two men was dropped after they paid reparations, the papers said.
Havelange, who is 96 and seriously ill, hasn’t been reachable for comment. Teixeira, who left Brazil after continued corruption allegations last year led to his downfall from the soccer federation, couldn’t be reached for comment either.
Officially, the Rio stadium is christened Estadio Olimpico João Havelange. But most people in the seaside metropolis already call it something else.
For its games, concerts, and other team-related events, Botafogo unimaginatively calls the 46,000-seat venue Rio Stadium. Most residents call it the Engenhão, after the working-class neighborhood in northern Rio where it is located.
Since the court documents were made public last week, support for officially changing the name has grown.
Benemond’s group suggested officials name the stadium after Nilton Santos, a Botafogo player of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Santos is also revered as a member of Brazil’s national team, having played alongside legends Pele and Garrincha in an era when the country hoisted two World Cups.
Another group suggests the stadium be renamed after João Saldanha, a legendary manager from the 1960s. Honoring Saldanha would be akin to swapping “a dwarf for a giant,” said Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s best-known sports journalists.
Any decision on a name change will depend on the Organizing Committee for the 2016 Olympics. So far, the Rio-based committee has ignored the controversy. Its web site still features gushing references to the stadium and Havelange.
This week, no one at the committee responded to emailed questions about the controversy and whether it would be appropriate for the city to host the games in a stadium named after the disgraced Havelange. (Editing by Paulo Prada and Todd Eastham)