Football: Restriction on World Cup tickets `breaks European law'

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The Independent Online
The European Commission is investigating the possibility that the World Cup organisers' system of ticket sales is illegal. Nick Harris reports.

A Professor of European Community law at Oxford University is challenging the right of the World Cup's organisers to sell a majority of the tickets to the French. Professor Stephen Weatherill believes the fact that 60 per cent of tickets have been made available only to purchasers in France is a clear breach of European law.

"In principle it's possible that the organisers might have to scrap the entire system and start again," said Professor Weatherill, who is arguing that the ticket policy is discriminatory and anti-competitive. In practice, he added, a fine would be the most probable outcome of any successful challenge.

The European Commission confirmed yesterday that it was looking into the legality of ticket sales for this summer's tournament following numerous inquiries. A spokesman would not speculate on what action, if any, would be taken, but added: "If anything needs to be done, it needs to be done quickly."

This latest development follows controversy over the limited number of tickets available to fans of each team - an average of only 4,000 tickets per game will be made available to national associations for games featuring their teams - and disquiet about the tickets black market, as revealed by The Independent last week.

Professor Weatherill first contacted the European Commission in June last year to complain that the French Organising Committee (CFO) was in breach of Article 85 of the European Community Treaty, which prohibits anti-competitive behaviour within Europe. He argued that the sale of such a large number of tickets exclusively to the French on the grounds of nationality or residence was a breach of that article.

The Commission told Professor Weatherill in September that the CFO had only notified them of their distribution plans in June last year. By that time, however, most of the 1.5m tickets set aside for French residents had already been sold.

At that stage, the Commission also appeared to be unaware that such large numbers of tickets had been allocated exclusively to the French. In a letter to Professor Weatherill, the Commission said: "It should now be possible for all interested football supporters, irrespective of their nationality and place of residence, to buy tickets via the available sources in France."

The reality is that just over 60 per cent of tickets have been allocated exclusively to the French. Another 20 per cent are going to tour operators and sponsors and the remaining 20 per cent to Fifa, the world game's governing body, to divide between supporters of the competing teams and national football federations.

Under this system, England fans, for example, will have access to about 4,000 tickets (around eight per cent) for each England game via the Football Association and a maximum of 2,000 more via tour operators. This represents a total share of around 12 per cent at maximum. Demand looks certain to outstrip supply by at least 10 to one.

In a later response to Professor Weatherill's complaints the Commission said it believed that some ticket restrictions were necessary for security reasons. It said it believed that the ticket distribution system did not break European law because supporters outside France still had access to tickets either from their national football federations or from tour operators, and hence their consumer rights were protected.

Professor Weatherill recognises the importance of security considerations, but has told the Commission that "the restrictions on distribution, which favour French residents, are disproportionate to achieve the object of public security".

He also argues that the system of discrimination is still, per se, a breach of the fundamental principles of EU law. In a letter to the Commission he said: "I urge you to act to protect my rights both as a consumer under EU law and a Citizen of the European Union."

The Commission has agreed to look further into the matter, as has the CFO. Meanwhile, Professor Weatherill - whose chair at Oxford is, ironically, sponsored by the European Commission and whose full title is Jacques Delors Professor of European Community Law and Associate of Somerville College - is still waiting for a response.

Although the costs of any legal action would be highly prohibitive, he believes that an individual would have a good chance of successfully suing the CFO. "The case, in law, is very very strong," he said.