Football: Worrying gaps in World Cup ticket system

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The Independent Online
France expects 500,000 foreigners to come to the World Cup next June. Officially, they will have 700,000 tickets to share between them. An invitation to bad temper and sky-high black market prices? Not a bit of it, the organisers tell John Lichfield in Paris.

Just over one quarter - 28 per cent - of the 2,500,000 places for the 1998 World Cup are reserved for foreign fans. In individual matches, the same number will be set aside for, say, England versus Italy, as for Iran versus Jamaica. They will go on sale next year, exclusively through national football associations and a handful of accredited tour operators.

For all stages of the competition, this amounts to 700,000 tickets. And yet the French authorities predict confidently that 500,000 people will come to France for the competition. Will they be satisfied with watching an average of less than two games each? The organisers insist that this is not quite the arithmetical problem that it seems. "Many of those who come will be family members, who will not want to watch the game themselves," said a spokeswoman for the Comite Francais d'Organisation.

On the other hand, if (say) England play the Netherlands in Montpellier (capacity 35,500), there will be only 5,000 tickets for each huge army of national fans. If Iran play South Korea at the Stade de France (capacity 80,000), there will be 11,000 tickets for each small group of supporters.

The venues will be decided by tomorrow's draw; they will not be dictated by common sense. Ostensibly, France 98 will be a ticket tout's delight.

The CFO insists that it has developed an effective system to prevent widespread black-marketeering (although it admits that a certain amount is unavoidable). The entire security strategy of the World Cup depends on the Committee getting it right. The "national" allocations will be for opposite ends of grounds, with French fans providing a larger buffer zone in between.

The remaining 1.8 million tickets will be sold to named individuals in France; more than 1.2 million have been sold, in the form of five or six match ticket-books for all first phase and last 16 games at one stadium. Individuals have been limited to four ticket-books each. Another 227,000 tickets for the later rounds and final will be allocated by lottery later this month: more than one million French people have applied.

In both cases, the buyers must declare French addresses, and bank account numbers, to the organisers. If they are found, by spot-checks, to have sold their tickets for a profit, they will face unspecified penalties. The organisers refuse to say what the penalties will be (although it is understood that, as a minimum, any other tickets sold to that person will be cancelled).

In another effort to prevent illicit trafficking, tickets will not actually be posted to successful applicants until the second half of May. None the less it is easy to see where the raw material for the black market might come from.

More than half a million tickets for the first phase and last 16 matches have been sold to the French "football family" (i.e. local associations and clubs) and to companies sponsoring the competition. Once again each ticket has been allocated, in theory, to a named individual. All these seats come in the form of a ticket-book, for all the games played at one venue. They can, however, be broken up and presented at the turnstile as individual tickets.

During the Tournoi de France last summer scores of tickets allocated in this way were never used, leaving huge gaps in the stadiums, which infuriated genuine French supporters who had been unable to buy seats. To prevent a similar public relations disaster this time, the corporate seats will be "scattered" more thinly around the grounds next summer. In practice, however, a good many of these 525,000 corporate and "football family" seats may find their way illegally to ticket- hungry foreign fans.

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