All the complaints about the ticketing didn't stop the grounds being full. But, as Steve Menary explains, that doesn't mean people were wrong to be angry at a system in need of reform

 Saudi Arabia’s opening group match against Tunisia on June 14 summed up the World Cup ticket paradox. There were a few empty seats before kick-off, but not enough to argue with an announcement that the most obscure first-round game had filled one of the biggest grounds, Munich’s impressive new 66,000-seat Allianz Arena.

Nowhere was Germany’s enthusiasm for hosting the finals more evident than at that match. Crammed into stifling trains from Munich’s Hauptbahnhof station to the Arena, forced to endure Christian evangelists offering free DVDs combining football and Jesus, were thousands of fans happy just to go to a game, any game, at the 2006 finals – and most were not Saudi or Tunisian but German.

Selling out this game was achieved partly through part of the ticketing system known as the “conditional programme”. Unlike the 1998 finals, when England fans brought the French phone system to a standstill in their quest to see matches, tickets for 2006 were available in phases over the internet with fans forced to sign up with a particular credit card company before applying. This policy and the large tranches of tickets reserved for sponsors in the executive boxes grated with fans of well supported nations such as England. Despite only eight per cent of a stadium’s capacity being officially reserved for each team’s fans, England supporters filled grounds en masse.

The match against Trinidad & Tobago in Nuremberg was at the smallest stadium, the 41,000-seat Frankenstadion, and touts offered tickets on match day for €500 (£350) – including some pathetic looking fakes. Fans’ solutions ranged from buying tickets from the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation to the conditional programme, which just days before the game allocated unwanted sponsors’ tickets to a few lucky England supporters. The various ticket phases had culminated with a free-for-all that allowed fans to buy tickets directly via the FIFA website and the conditional programme offered a form of insurance. Conditional buyers had to use that credit card again to stump up €400 (£276) for a maximum of four tickets for games that, according to the website, were sold out. If the tickets returned by sponsors were less than the maximum single price of €100 (£69), then the fans were refunded the balance. For example, someone paying €400 (£276) for four conditional tickets who was subsequently awarded four €40 (£28) tickets should get a €240 (£166) refund.

Most website visits suggested the entire tournament was sold out and finding tickets available on the website was pure luck. When, one Sunday just weeks before kick-off, swathes of tickets were made available for three quarters of the group games, most of the last 16 matches, all four quarter-finals and a semi-final, the conditional programme seemed like unnecessary insurance. Unfortunately, cancelling it proved impossible until all the tickets on the site were sold out. Only then did the website respond.

That is partly an IT issue but also symptomatic of FIFA’s policy towards fans keen to watch any World Cup finals game. FIFA ignored requests to explain their ticketing policy but Sepp Blatter admitted to the Observer that the issue was an “ongoing problem”. Ticketing was outsourced in Germany – a decision Blatter conveniently blamed on the hosts, saying: “This was a system which was brought up by the German organising committee. FIFA will handle the ticketing itself for the 2010 World Cup to avoid all the criticism we have received here.”

The problem with the ticketing lays not so much with the system, which allowed thousands of German fans to take up eagerly seats left unsold just days before kick-off and fill the grounds, but with FIFA’s insistence on always protecting their sponsors. Why do fans signing up to the conditional programme have to essentially loan €400 (£276) to FIFA for months on end? Who gets interest on this money as its sits in a bank account?

Ticket prices were as low as €35 (£24) for the 2006 finals, but at the heart of FIFA’s ticketing policy is a tenet that fans must always underwrite bloated corporate sponsors. Blatter insists that in South Africa in 2010 more tickets will go to fans, but simple maths suggests that if sponsors get a smaller percentage of tickets, then ordinary spectators will have to pay more or FIFA will make less money – and Blatter will never allow that to happen.

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month

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