Football: Black market lure for frustrated World Cup fans

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The Independent Online
With the start of the World Cup still five months away, ticket sales and distribution are already causing problems for the organising committee and fans alike. As the authorities investigate the alleged illegal re-sale of seats, Nick Harris looks at the booming black market.

England supporters wanting to travel to France this summer have limited options for securing seats. Approximately 4,000 tickets for each group match will be available for the Football Association to distribute to their 32,000 travel club members.

Appeals made in Paris on Tuesday for more tickets are unlikely to result in more seats for British fans, although it will not be until the end of February that Fifa, the game's world governing body, will decide how to allocate the maximum of eight per cent of tickets per team set aside for the supporters in each game.

The only chance of any more tickets being available for England fans is if the national federations of Tunisia, Romania and Colombia say they do not require their share.

The other option for fans is to try to buy packages from operators authorised by Fifa, but demand is so high that applicants who have not already applied are unlikely to be successful.

A spokeswoman for the French Organising Committee (CFO) said yesterday that 2,000 tickets for each group game (as opposed to the eight per cent figure reported previously) would be sold world-wide by the 17 tour operators authorised by the CFO to do so.

There are five such operators in Europe, three of them in England, and each will receive 100 tickets for each of the 32 group matches, regardless of the teams involved. In addition, they will receive 150 tickets per European team involved.

For the England game against Tunisia the European operators will receive a total of 250 tickets - the 100 basic allowance plus 150 because England are playing - and for the England game with Romania they will receive 400 (100 plus 150 for each team). These tickets can then be sold wherever the operators choose, including outside Europe.

Those tickets that are eventually sold to England fans will be in high demand, despite what many will consider to be high prices. Gullivers Sports Travel, one of the three Fifa-approved operators in this country, is asking for pounds 595 for a day trip to one game. Mike Burton Sports Travel estimates a trip to the final will be around pounds 1,500.

Two other means of attempting to buy World Cup tickets are therefore likely to prove attractive to some, even if it means circumventing the system. Either they can disregard the advice of "No ticket, do not travel" and turn up at the games in the hope of buying from a tout, or they can turn to one of the numerous unofficial agents that are starting to emerge. These are mainly American agencies selling on the Internet, although there are also reports that companies are selling in Britain.

However, by no means all those agencies advertising on the Internet are unauthorised. Some Fifa-approved agencies also publicise their authorised ticket-and-travel packages on the web.

Trading in tickets via unofficial sources is forbidden by the rules of the CFO and is under investigation. The CFO has warned the public that they should not be tempted to purchase from unofficial sources.

Any fan turning up at a match with a ticket purchased from an unauthorised source could be refused entry, on the grounds that there has been a breach of contract in the terms of sale of the ticket. However, the CFO has said that it does not plan to have systematic identity checks at games, unless they have prior information that certain blocks of tickets have been sold via unauthorised agents.

Unauthorised tickets are being offered on the Internet for England's opening game, on 15 June against Tunisia, for between pounds 174 and pounds 411 each. Tickets for the game against Romania on 22 June are on offer at the same price, while tickets for the game against Colombia on 26 June are being advertised between pounds 206 and pounds 475 each. Tickets for the quarter-final that might feature England if they progressed beyond the group stage are being offered at between pounds 206 and pounds 566, while semi-final tickets range from pounds 269-pounds 946 and tickets for the final are advertised at pounds 775-pounds 3,448 each. The face value of the majority of tickets for the finals is between pounds 16 and pounds 40 per match.

Some agencies claim they can provide as many tickets as required, with one advertising on the Internet that orders from "1 to 1,000" can be met, and another agent saying: "Quantity is not a problem. The disclaimer is that unless you pay in full now, in the event of the prices going crazy, we can't guarantee these prices will stay the same."

While The Independent disclosed yesterday that an Atlanta-based agency, 24/7 Ticket Service, claims it is being supplied by Fifa-approved agents, other American agencies advertising on the Internet said their main source of tickets would be those French people who bought blocks of tickets (known as Pass France 98 and comprising of five or six tickets for one venue) in France between November 1996 and April 1997 and who are now willing to sell them to brokers and agents for profit.

One agent in America confirmed she would buy tickets from such sources to fulfil orders from people who wish to buy from her. "Our tickets are sourced from all over the world," she said. "I buy from secondary markets and pay over the odds."

The CFO said tickets may only be sold to the public by themselves, their authorised tour operators and national football federations permitted by Fifa to sell tickets.

A CFO spokesman said: "We have the right to allow people to sell tickets and we want to protect that right." He added: "We won't let companies sell tickets that don't have the right to. We want tickets to be sold properly."

The spokesman said one company in France, which he could not name for legal reasons, was already being investigated for illegal brokering activities and the trade had been stopped. Other traders in France, offering to buy and sell tickets, are being investigated.

"To protect the public, the CFO has taken legal action, and will continue to do so, against all those who offer tickets for sale without proper authorisation, in the interests of preventing and punishing any undertaking of this kind," a statement said.

The CFO added that, to enhance security, all World Cup tickets are nominal and will not be issued until May, but this has not proved sufficient to deter a black market.

It is not only British supporters who are unhappy. The Netherlands and Belgium meet in a group game on 13 June in the 80,000-seat Stade de France in Paris - yet they are likely to be allocated only 5,800 and 5,400 tickets, respectively.

Despite the fact the Brussels is only 85 minutes by train from Paris and the Dutch have large travelling support, the vast majority of available tickets will go to French supporters, travel agencies marketing world- wide, and corporate sponsors. It would be remarkable if some of these tickets did not end up in hands other than those for which they are intended.

In a statement released by the Dutch football association, the KNVB, a spokesman summed up the frustrations of the many who are willing, but unable, to attend by legitimate means. "The current division of tickets will simply play into the hands of black marketeers," he said.