Tickets for events like the World Cup are hard to come by.
Not simply because of incredible demand from fans all over the world; not just because football’s increasing corporate appeal means thousands of seats are swallowed up by sponsors, associates and the notorious FIFA family.
Much of the difficulty stems from a ticketing system which – in an attempt to be fair and equal – distributes allocations to national federations and their supporters, and uses structured, open ballots to allow other fans to apply online at certain deadlines.
This is all very well but, of course, it often leaves genuine fans short of tickets for the games they want to see. I met Australia supporters in Manaus who had wanted to watch their team play Chile, but found it easier to get hold of tickets for Italy’s victory over England, which had a lower demand due to a remote jungle location that hardy Antipodeans do not fear.
There were Croatia fans cheering on Bosnia on Sunday night at the Maracana, unable to get hold of seats for their opener against Brazil. But, frankly, a glorious game in a glorious setting is a glorious game in a glorious setting, whoever is involved.
In the grand scheme of things, the system works out fine for most – you may only catch one of your national team’s matches, you may even miss them all, but you will likely see some excellent football and soak up the carnival atmosphere in any of the host cities.
But, if you’re really determined, it is still possible to buy your favoured match ticket on the day. Not through official channels, of course, but via the shady network of scalpers, some of whom are chancers, some of whom are seasoned professionals.
I wrote about Argentina’s legions of support ahead of their 2-1 win over Bosnia on Sunday night. Before the match, thousands of ticketless fans were desperately trying to source tickets in and around the Copacobana beach.
One particular incident stood out. A gaggle of Argentines were surrounding a tall, blond man in his mid-to-late 30s. He was sporting expensive sunglasses and a Bosnia polo shirt, looking and sounding like the Eurotrash offspring of Juergen Klopp and Roger Federer. His Swiss-German accent and louche, playboy demeanour was something of a giveaway; he may have been of Bosnian descent, he may have been faking it, but this was someone with contacts in high places, who had spent time in the wealthier enclaves of Europe.
Casually dismissing offers from desperate supporters with the attitude of a disinterest rock star palming off teenage groupies, he insisted on $500 dollars or its equivalent in Euros, the figure for which he was unable to give.
Given this was Brazil, fans were offering the equivalent amount in Reals. He rejected them in disgust. "Only dollars or Euros," he would shrug while posing against a beach railing. Ten minutes later, as more Argentines surrounded him, he raised the price further, pointing at those he wished to service, and waving off anyone who tried to negotiate.
There are words for people like him, and they are not printable during office hours.
He was likely an amateur, someone with the contacts to obtain dozens of tickets, milking the attention and toying with the emotions of men who – on a different day – would never countenance such arrogance.
However, the scalper does not always come in the same guise, and provoke the same response.
Outside the Maracana on Sunday night, a British fan was seeking to obtain a ticket for the very same game, just an hour before kick-off. The chaos of the Maracana subway and the surrounding areas meant he had all but given up until, minutes before kick-off, an unmistakable accent from the North West of England was heard offering tickets.
"I’ll be straight with you mate, it’s £400. I’ll take whatever currency you want, you won’t be disappointed by a fake, and I’m happy to exchange numbers and help you out for any game in Brazil."
The British fan was a bit short - by around £30 - but the tout accepted his offer, knowing the fan would be back for more: the difference will be settled when he buys his ticket for England's match with Uruguay in Sao Paulo.
Too good to be true? No. The ticket (face value $175) was legitimate and, while the scalper’s trade may not be, his intentions are, according to him.
"I do all the major sports events. This is my job. I estimate the demand before the match, pick a price, and stick to it. The only change is if demand drops just later on, when it obviously gets cheaper.
"I don’t play games, and I don’t raise the price willy nilly. If you don’t have the cash to hand, I’ll give you my number and I’ll keep the ticket for you. That’s the deal – if you’re straight with people, they come back to you, and trust you for the big ones, like the World Cup final, like Wimbledon.
"I am willing to negotiate if you're a bit short, and I will tell you what other tickets I have at lower prices if you would rather spend less for another game. I'll give you a deal if you want two or more."
Despite his candour, you got the impression this was not a man to be messed with. But he knew full well he was there to provide a service, and that fans should be treated as clients, not mere desperados to be toyed with and insulted. Of course, the scalper did not wish to be identified.
This profession may be exploitative, but such is capitalism, and this system is more straightforward than a random draw, which does not take into account desire, nationality, love of the game or even basic interest in it. And if you can afford to fly to Brazil, stay in overpriced accommodation and consume overpriced food and drink in FIFA stadia, a few hundred notes may be no great inconvenience to watch Lionel Messi strut his stuff.
The hassle of getting any ticket for the World Cup is worth the extra £200 to some people, particularly those for whom time is money. The hours, weeks and days spent trying to obtain World Cup, Olympics and Wimbledon seats could be better spent, you know, working.
It’s not ideal. Obviously more tickets should be available to genuine fans, and distribution of seats to sponsors, associates and others should be limited – for they can also be the ones that end up on the black market. Those spots could be added to the existing allocations for official fan groups, which are often small. They could be released on the day, allowing the die-hards to queue from the small hours to get their route to history.
And with online applications, perhaps there could be a system to gauge genuine interest in football – maybe in the form of a basic quiz with visual representations of, say, contentions offside decisions? Although, given the lack of understanding displayed by some referees and pundits, that could well rule out those for whom football is a profession.
I stayed in touch with the fan in question, who is now also heading to Sao Paulo to watch England’s match with Uruguay, admittedly at some cost - £600, to be precise. To put the price in context, the average monthly salary in Brazil is roughly half that: £317.
The fan told me that the tout in question explained his business model further. It involves a network of friends based in different cities at every major football tournament, picking up spares in bulk, usually sold on by companies who made corporate block bookings but lose clients or find out their business associates cannot make the game. And these corporate hawkers aren't random chancers - they are regular suppliers with long-term relationships with high-end touts. Better flog them to an experienced 'professional' than let the seats stay empty, or run the risk themselves, goes their logic.
More worryingly though, some of the tickets come from people who should know better - we've all heard the stories of individuals connected to the game selling on their allocations at a profit. This is less frequent, but still occurs, the tout told my contact.
Our fan may even fork out the greenbacks for Spain v Chile, but will wait until the matchday as the tout's expectation is that Spanish fans aren't travelling en masse and that the prices may drop. A week in Brazil, and three classic matches for the price of a bog-standard hotel room on the Copacabana Beach.
I will not blame FIFA for this - their system is almost too rigorous, with corporate bookings essential to all entertainments and 'family and friends' allocations seen as fair reward for those involved in events. Guest lists are the norm in music and film - sport is no different.
It is a problem in all major sporting events, concerts and dramatic performances. But, obviously, there has to be a better way. Suggestions are most welcome.
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