Joyce Woolridge bought a ticket for £12, went to Barcelona and saw her team win the European Cup, albeit from a great height. Not everyone was so lucky
“If there is anyone with a spare match ticket, would they contact the gentleman in seat 16B.” An ironic cheer greeted this announcement as our plane joined the other charters making their way to Spain for the Champions League final. As it turned out, the hopeful passenger would find no shortage of people with tickets available once we touched down in Barcelona.
From snatches of overheard conversation, it appeared there were many fans similarly empty-handed on our flight. Most seemed ready to hand over between £300 and £350 for the privilege of witnessing what was arguably United’s biggest game for 31 years, but claimed they weren’t prepared to go any higher and would watch the match in the bars or on the giant screen if necessary.
Later, the burning question in the bars off the Ramblas had nothing to do with whether Sheringham would start, if Stam was fit nor how would United cope without Keane and Scholes in midfield. Instead it centred on the going rate for tickets. Wild rumours circulated about the inflated sums being shelled out by the desperate. Estimates of how many ticketless United fans had made the trip were equally vague, but they were reputed to number in the thousands.
Everyone you spoke to, ticketless or not, had been offered tickets. Every inhabitant of Barcelona, it appeared, had become a tout for the day. In the streets small children approached anyone they deemed British and demanded the peseta equivalent of £600 for a piece of paper sporting a distinctive blue, gold and red Joan Miróesque design.
More recognisable as entrepreneurs were the groups of Spanish men with mobiles, the international symbol of toutistry, seated on walls en route to the Nou Camp. An hour and a half before kick off they wanted £300 to £400 for their wares. The Barcelona paper said tickets would be on sale to locals (up to a maximum of four each) a day before the game. But the range and variety of nationalities who seemed to have found it very easy to obtain a ticket for the big match when United’s fans all over Britain had found it impossible were staggering. Scandinavians, Italians, Dutch and French all had spares for sale at the right price. Billed as an International Carnival of Football, the event could more accurately have been described as a Tournament of Touting or, even better, a Festival of Forgery. Because, naturally, £600 did not guarantee you the genuine article.
Hundreds of United fans had flown to Lloret Del Mar on cheap package holidays to avoid the licensed banditry being practised by the charter companies for flights that got you in and out on the same day. The seaside resort was forgery central, and it was from there rather than any official source that the information on how to spot snide tickets had come.
The garbled version relayed on the plane had given me heart failure; the seating plan on the reverse was smudged (mine looked a bit fuzzy) but the giveaway was a spelling mistake. I panicked as I scanned mine. Does Nutella (the official nutty chocolate spread of the Champions League) have one or two “Ts”? Then I noticed that in Point Five of the “Precautionary measures to prevent violence amongst spectators at sports events” the word “psychotropic” (as in drugs, under the influence of) had been gloriously misspelt. Luckily, someone told me the real tell-tale sign was that an “N” had been mistakenly added to the Spanish word “graderia” in the bogus version.
I had obtained a ticket relatively easily by post from Old Trafford for the modest sum of £12. Only season ticket holders and members who had attended all United’s home European, FA Cup and Worthington Cup ties could apply. In the end I was able to buy a Champions League final ticket because I had bought tickets for the two midweek Worthington Cup games against Bury and Nottingham Forest, and not because I had gone to any Premier League home matches, something which infuriated many United fans. However, the Nou Camp is a very big stadium, and the tickets which afforded the best views (that is, ones that were anywhere near the pitch) went elsewhere. You were effectively purchasing a good view of the replay screens and the honour of saying you were there in person.
Thanks to the traditionally shambolic organisation which once again meant dangerous crushes of people built up on the approach to the gates, bruised fans were often reaching their seats 20 minutes after kick-off. Segregation was rendered nonsensical by the black market. When United’s players ran out, fans stood up to applaud them in three-quarters of the stadium.
The galling fact was that if you were prepared to keep your nerve and wait to make your purchase, usually under the noses of the police (whose main concern was to splinter flag sticks under their big boots or confiscate the tops of your bottles of water), you could buy a good seat for probably £100 over face val-ue and actually see the game. If you didn’t, the bars around the ground closed or wouldn’t admit football fans, the giant screen was inside the outer gates and fans without tickets couldn’t gain access, so you would have to stand in the road and try to work out what was going on.
The enduring memory for many of this final will not be the stunning finale, but how the whole of Europe, make that the world, seemed to be queuing up to take part in one huge rip-off of supporters who wanted to see the game. And while everyone was making money hand over fist, they couldn’t even be bothered to ensue the safety of those people who had resigned themselves to being fleeced to gain entry.
From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month