France hogs world cup tickets despite EC threat

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WORLD CUP organisers in France are heading for a legal battle with the European Commission after refusing to make all remaining tickets for this summer's tournament available to foreign supporters.

The commission, unhappy that a large proportion of the 2.5 million tickets had already been sold to French fans, wanted the remaining 160,000 tickets to be sold exclusively to non-French nationals. However, the World Cup organisers (CFO) said last night that they had refused to agree to the request on the grounds that it would have discriminated against the French.

The commission responded by saying it would start legal proceedings in an attempt to persuade the CFO to change its policy. The commission said it could fine the CFO the equivalent of 10 per cent of its revenue from ticket sales.

England, Scotland and many other competing countries throughout Europe have complained at the shortage of tickets for their fans.

More than 60 per cent have already been allocated to the French, with only 21 per cent made available to foreign football federations. On average, national federations will be allocated only 4,000 tickets for games in which their teams are competing.

The CFO wants to make 50,000 of the remaining tickets available to foreign federations, but to sell the other 110,000 tickets directly to fans throughout Europe. These would be sold exclusively by telephone, on a first-come first-served basis, treating French and other nationals equally. Jacques Lambert, the CFO's managing director, said yesterday that the commission's demands "would have meant inverse discrimination against the French and constituted a gross injustice". He added: "Europe is a democracy and we have the right to defend our policy. If the EC fines us, we will appeal."

Stefan Rating, a commission spokesman, said the CFO had refused to changed its policy because of political pressure in France. Marie-George Buffet, the French Minister for Sport, said last week that the commission's position amounted to discrimination against the organising country. However, Mr Rating said the commission's demand to sell all remaining tickets to non-French people only was "a tiny discrimination" compared to the favouritism shown towards the French earlier in the selling campaign.

The commission is expected to fire the opening shot in a legal battle by sending a formal statement of objection today. However, with the start of the tournament less than three months away, time is rapidly running out if the ticket sales system is to be changed.