Football World Cup: When the black market offers a way around the red tape

Steve Beauchampe on the traumas of obtaining a ticket for France 98
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The Independent Online
Every football fan should go to a World Cup tournament; being part of the beautiful game's greatest gathering is an unforgettable experience. With next year's finals if not quite coming home then at least visiting the neighbours, many supporters will be tempted to make this the one.

For UK-based fans, travelling to France is easy - a plethora of trains, boats, cars and planes means that all 10 venues should be easily and affordably accessed. Accommodation, from hotels to camp sites, is plentiful and generally of a high standard. Which just leaves getting hold of tickets.

And it's a minefield. The ticket distribution systems employed by World Cup and European Championship organisers have long been underpinned by the same basic principles. The aim is to sell large blocks of tickets as early as possible to organisations (and even individuals) who then face the task of redistributing or perhaps reselling them to people who actually intend going to the games. 200,000 of the 2.5 million tickets available for France are being sold to tour operators, with a further 300,000 set aside for sponsors and commercial affiliates. French citizens bought all 1.27 million France Passes - cards covering every group and round of 16 match at a specified venue. Effectively, this is a season ticket, but its inflexibility means that to attend games with friends or relatives, or to travel to different venues, supporters had to purchase a series of cards. Widespread trading and swapping of these therefore seems inevitable.

At least French citizens could choose which fixtures and teams to watch. Fans resident in the remaining 190 Fifa-member countries effectively had no such choice. Allocations to the 32 qualifiers for their own matches (France excepted) are under 10 per cent of ground capacity. And with five of the venues holding fewer than 40,000 spectators, most countries will find demand out-stripping supply. Allocations for other games are minuscule, and for some fixtures they can be counted in tens.

The system is crazy. If you a) wish to follow any country other than the one in which you reside; b) live in a country that failed to qualify; or c) find that your own country's allocation is over subscribed, then obtaining tickets officially means approaching tour operators. Using their dominant market position, they can charge excessively for their packages (I was quoted pounds 1,600 for a trip to the semi-final and final by one English company). The only alternative for most supporters is the black market, which, though risky and unpredictable, might bring results.

A consequence of these Fifa-approved ticket sales mechanisms is that (for all but the biggest fixtures) there are often thousands of tickets searching for buyers, sometimes right up until match day. Unable to purchase affordably priced tickets in England, I flew to the 1994 World Cup ticketless, targeted five games (two of which organisers insisted were sold out) and got into every one, just once paying above face value, and then only by $5 (pounds 3). One was marked Israeli FA; a friend's read property of the Panamanian FA. At Italia 90, one sponsor had so many excess tickets for the England v Cameroon match that they gave fistfuls away outside the stadium before kick-off.

So, while frustrated fans agonise over whether to travel to France, and those with blocks of tickets desperately try to find buyers for them, World Cup organisers can relax, safe in the knowledge that ticket distribution is no longer their problem. Instead, they are able to tell both Fifa and the world's media that high ticket sales have helped ensure the tournament's profitability.

A fundamental rethink is needed, aimed at getting tickets directly from tournament organisers to those fans who actually wish to attend games. The feasibility of a system which allows tickets to be sold via credit cards and the Internet should be investigated and steps taken to prevent tour operators and national FAs from exploiting and abusing their access to tickets. For France 98, a shambles is guaranteed, but there is still time to improve things for Euro 2000 and beyond.