Sometimes, The Only Choice Is A Tense, Nervous Deal With A Scalper

South Africa Prepares For FIFA World Cup

A policeman shows a ticket to a  fan trying to enter a Brazilian training session on June 3. John Moore/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption John Moore/Getty

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The United States is represented at the World Cup by its soft drinks, its fast food, its swooshes and its flag-draped fans. But there’s one classic American that’s found its way to South Africa: scalpers.

I’m attending this World Cup mostly as a civilian — no media credential! — traveling with my brother and his 16-year-old son. Months ago, we received tickets to the three opening-round U.S. games through an online lottery run by soccer’s governing body, FIFA. But when I tried, shortly before the tournament and since arriving last week, to buy tickets for individual matches on FIFA’s website, I was foiled.

On Sunday, the day before the Netherlands-Denmark game at Soccer City in Johannesburg, I navigated to FIFA.com’s well-hidden ticketing system (see if you can find it), clicked on the match, viewed available ticket categories and hit “Add to Chart.” (I eventually deduced FIFA’s crack linguists meant “Add to Cart.”) The response: “Tickets are currently unavailable, please retry your request.” I tried several more times and again the next morning. Yes, there are available tickets. No, you can’t buy them.

This isn’t the first time the ticketing system has failed, which is pretty stunning given the basic need to sell tickets, the years and millions FIFA spends preparing for a World Cup and the grandiose manner in which it functions. Along with the International Olympic Committee, FIFA — the Federation Internationale de Futbol — takes itself and its “mission” very, very seriously. The IOC has its “Olympism” (undermined by every steroids-positive Bulgarian weightlifter or underage Chinese gymnast), and FIFA has its “Fair Play” (undermined every time a Daniele de Rossi takes a dive).

At this World Cup, anyway, FIFA seems to be treating tickets as a precious commodity to be hidden from the people. Take our experience: After whiffing online the morning of the NED-DEN game yesterday, we decided to try our luck at the stadium. On Saturday in Rustenburg, I saw fans trying to unload extras and figured we might get lucky that way. Nothing. Then I saw some English fans slipping someone a wad of rand. Scalper for sure.

The View From Our Seats

This is the view we ended up getting. Michael Fatsis hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Fatsis

The big risk in buying black-market tickets to big events is counterfeiting. At Soccer City, fans have to show their tickets while passing through a first “security” checkpoint about a half mile from the stadium. (I use quotation marks because security so far has been a joke; screeners haven’t bothered inspecting the contents of my bag at either game I’ve attended.) A ticket doesn’t pass through a bar-code scanner, which would detect fraud, until the actual stadium entrance, by which time a scalper would be on a slow train to Durban.

After the English deal went down, two FIFA officials in blue suits, sunglasses and walkie-talkies approached the buyers and warned them but didn’t confiscate the tickets. A phalanx of South African cops stood in full view of a group of scalpers who conferred periodically. I asked one of the FIFA security types whether there was any place to buy available or returned tickets.

“There is nowhere to buy tickets at the stadium,” she said. Which makes no business sense.

A scalper approached. “How many ya need?” He must have taken a direct flight from the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. He wore dirty, baggy pants and a T-shirt; a cigarette dangled from his lips; he was pushy. Amazing tickets, he told us, right down near the field.

“They’re the best seats in the house,” he said. “Look at all these people. These are gonna be gone in a minute.”

He asked for a 25 percent markup on face value. I walked away. He returned seconds later with a new offer: $100 less, now just a 4 percent markup on face. There were just five minutes to kickoff. I wanted to wait him out longer — the value of a ticket declines rapidly once a game starts — but on the theory that we had come this far, my brother just wanted to get inside. The scalper declined a below-face offer. We paid.

I immediately noticed “McDonald’s” stamped on the front of the ticket. McDonald’s is an official World Cup sponsor. Somewhere in the fast-food empire, someone was selling, probably well below face value, some of the thousands of tickets FIFA issues to corporate sponsors to ticket brokers, who in turn were selling them at a small profit to scalpers, who were flying from America to make their low-margin, high-volume payday. Today, the Johannesburg Star reported on its front page that “touts” at the Cameroon-Japan match in Bloemfontein were selling tickets stamped with the names of  the soccer associations of South Africa and Cameroon, as well as individuals. Everybody makes a buck.

At least our scalper wasn’t lying. I exhaled when the ticket scanner beeped our tickets through. The seats indeed were right on the midfield line, 25 rows up. Seated nearby were three Dutch McDonald’s executives dressed in orange suits, McD’s ties and plastic orange clogs.

My nephew was in heaven. “This is awesome,” he said.

Stefan Fatsis is a regular guest on “All Things Considered.” He’s also a panelist on Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen” and the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic.

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