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Cynical, exploitative ticket touts deserve no sympathy when they are caught

I F you read Iain Meiklejohn's timeline on Twitter yesterday you didn't need to be a dad to find it poignant and heartbreaking.

Police in Rio de Janeiro arrest Ray Whelan in connection with ticket-scalping offences. Picture: EPA
Police in Rio de Janeiro arrest Ray Whelan in connection with ticket-scalping offences. Picture: EPA

Being a football fan was enough. Last November Iain, an Edinburgh guy, booked his flights and accommodation to Brazil for the World Cup final. In February he used just about the only option available to an ordinary, neutral fan hoping to go to the greatest fixture of them all. He went to a ticket tout.

He paid for tickets for himself and his young son, Aleks. The wee fella had never been to a game before. His introduction to football would be unique and breathtaking: a World Cup final in the Maracana. I don't know Iain, but it's safe to assume that for the past six months him and his lad have been beside themselves with excitement. Then, last Tuesday, their world came crashing down.

Those tickets they bought? They wouldn't be coming. They were among the victims - dozens of victims, hundreds of victims? - of the ticket touting scandal which has made Ray Whelan a notorious figure last week. When Whelan was arrested the supply line of tickets stopped stone dead and the World Cup final began to retreat for Iain and his lad.

Desperately, Meiklejohn took to Twitter over the past 48 hours (meiklejohn21). He posted messages explaining what had happened. He put up a picture of his boy in a kilt and his blue t-shirt with "World Cup final Rio" on the front and "my first match 13.7.14" on the back.

The Brazilian law enforcement agencies had 25,000 officers on the streets yesterday. It would have felt about as easy to get into Pyongyang or the White House as the Maracana. Having been at three of the group games at this World Cup, including two at the Maracana, I'd seen the multiple ticket checks outside the stadiums, the ponderous corralling of long lines of supporters between crush barriers or police, the bag checks, the airport-style scanning machines, the endless, endless queuing. When fans emerged from the metro station at the Sao Paulo stadium before the Netherlands-Chile game they were confronted by a wall of Chilean fans holding up handwritten signs on bits of cardboard, all desperately looking for tickets. That was for a group game. Yesterday was the final, with up to 100,000 Argentines in the city. There were barriers blocking streets hundreds of metres away from the Maracana. Iain and his boy didn't stand a chance.

Ray Whelan is a senior executive with Match, FIFA's "ticket and hospitality partner". Match has a £175 million contract with FIFA and sold 300,000 hospitality packages for the World Cup. But the allegation is that there has been a £52m ticket touting ring making money from acquiring and illegally selling VIP tickets and hospitality passes.

Whelan is currently in hiding, branded a fugitive by Rio de Janeiro police. When they turned up to rearrest him over ticket touting allegations (he had already been arrested and bailed) they claimed he fled through a service exit of the Copacabana Hotel (the plushest in Rio). Match has said it was confident any charges raised against Whelan would be rebutted. Well, that's just great for devastated fans who have been shafted.

Touting is a cynical, exploitative, shady business. I've used touts once or twice in the past, to go to really big occasions when all official avenues had been exhausted. On one occasion tickets paid for four months earlier did not arrive. The closer the game got, the more frequent, and heated, the phone calls and texts become. Eventually a rendezvous was arranged in a hotel on the morning of the match, just five hours before kick-off. After four months of prevaricating bullshit our expectations weren't high.

But, as promised, a guy did appear in the hotel bar at the allotted time, correctly identified us from our obvious sense of desperation, duly introduced himself and pulled an envelope out of his over-the-shoulder bag. Our tickets. Now we realise how lucky we were.

Normal, ordinary fans will reluctantly turn to touts as their only hope of attending a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Some fans paid way over the odds to be inside the stadiums in Seville in 2003 and Manchester in 2008, when Celtic and Rangers supporters descended in their tens of thousands. Fans have mixed feelings about touts and touting. There is universal anger and resentment over the ease with which touts get their hands on hundreds of tickets, and bitterness over the prices they charge.

There will be no sympathy for Whelan if he is charged and convicted, nor for any of the others whose corruption and greed could get them the jail. Yet touts will endure. The black market is unregulated and unreliable and the prices can be extortionate, yet they still offer a tantalising route to tickets which are otherwise way beyond reach.

The Maracana virtually came under military occupation yesterday. Soldiers and police everywhere, roads closed, helicopters overhead. Iain Meiklejohn eventually posted another picture of his wee lad peering through a crush barrier blocking the street, the Maracana barely visible in the distance. He still had his "my first match" t-shirt on. With the picture, seven words: "This is as close as we got."

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

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