KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Only one headache lingers as the World Cup party begins to fade into the sepia of sporting memory. The football was outstanding, the stadia were ready, Brazil was a generous host and even the disciplinary judgment on Luis Suarez was spot-on.
Unfinished business sits, however, in a cell in Bangu prison in Rio de Janeiro. His name is Ray Whelan and he is the individual in which the headache is personified.
Ticket touting is so ancient a profession that the serpent was doubtless selling two-together in the trees of the Garden of Eden.
World federation FIFA could have sold many more than the 3.4m tickets available for the 2014 finals.
For some matches tickets were like gold dust with the printed price way below the sums at which they were scalped both on street corners and in luxury hotel lounges.
Whelan, to the pain, bewilderment and concern of his company and family – which means, coincidentally, the same thing – is taking the rap.
This is barely understandable and certainly unacceptable for Jaime Byrom, chairman of the tight group of companies which employ Whelan and have worked ever more closely with FIFA for the past 20 years.
Byrom plc, Match Services and Match Hospitality have woven their own and FIFA’s interests into a complex web of mutual dependency in spheres from accommodation to hospitality to ticketing to IT services (Hospitality accounts for around 400,000, or 12pc, World Cup tickets).
Hence Byrom is confident that his companies delivered on every FIFA contract in Brazil.
He evinced no concern, when pressed in London yesterday, about the contract extensions, most recently agreed in November 2011, which keep Byrom/Match on board for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the 2017 and 2021 Confederations Cups, and the Women’s World Cups in 2019 and 2023.
The point at issue for him, he insisted, is family. Ray Whelan, his brother-in-law, was detained on the basis of phone taps of conversations about ticket sales with another suspect. Police say he was selling over the odds in what is called the ‘parallel market’; Byrom said he was merely talking the approved big numbers of hospitality packages.
Byrom added: “We could not reconcile what was happening, with a member of our family going to Bangu. They even proceeded to shave his hair and we felt that was part of some sort of media exercise.
“Having said that my sister [his wife] has met with Ray twice, it appears he is being well looked after in the circumstances, he is in a private cell. But he is 64 so he is not a young person.
“We are very keen to impress upon the authorities that they have no reason for keeping him in custody. He has roots in Brazil. Not only do they own property but the company has assets in Brazil, his son is married to a Brazilian and the company is standing very much behind him.
“There is no intention of leaving Brazil for any one of a million reasons, not least that until he clears his name we cannot drop the matter. We have to make sure that, at the end of the day, we are there to answer whatever questions or investigations are conducted.
“Our concern is that we believe this is the product of a series of misunderstandings and we don’t want it to become very difficult for the authorities eventually to exonerate Ray or release him because of the high profile of this operation.
“We can fully understand how the officers may have misunderstood what was happening. We understand the impact of being able to link their Jules Rimet operation to someone closely associated to FIFA and Match.
“But what they have to understand is that, far from incriminating Ray, with every statement they have leaked to the press, they have exonerated Ray. Otherwise it would be very easy for people to have the impression created by the media and feel that there must be something wrong, no smoke without fire.”
The tickets distraction at a superb World Cup burst into the open, to the irritation and total surprise of FIFA, on July 2 when agents for the civil police and the Public Affairs Ministry raided addresses in Rio and Sao Paulo and arrested 11 men.
One was identified as a French-Algerian 57-year-old named Mohamadou Lamine Fofana. He was said to have a home in Dubai and an office in Switzerland, his phone calls had been monitored for several months and many of these had been to a number in Zurich.
In fact, two ticket inquiries appeared to become confused. The one concerned police suspicions about tickets handled by Match while the other concerned tickets in Fofana’s possession and which had come from three national team delegations.
Police sources named the delegations as those of Argentina, Brazil. Within 24 hours Humberto Mario Grondona, the son of Argentinian FA president Julio Grondona (who is also FIFA’s senior vice-president) had owned up on television to having passed on to friends tickets he had bought, properly, through the ‘FIFA family’ system.
At this point police and Ministry sources indicated that Fofana was no longer being considered the ‘ring leader’; that role of suspicion had fallen on “an individual within FIFA.” Police claimed that the gang had been clearing more than $400,000 per game on tickets sold at up to 10 times their face value.
Subsequently Whelan, formally an executive consultant to Match Services, was arrested for questioning. He was held overnight, released on bail and then – after something of a Keystone Cops farce – handed himself back in to the relevant court on the day after the World Cup Final.
Police took from his room at the Copacabana Palace – FIFA’s World Cup headquarter – around $1,200 in cash plus 83 World Cup tickets. These tickets, said Byrom, were company and family tickets to the final in Maracana. This is where Byrom believed police “confusion” and “misperceptions” – his polite terms – muddied all the waters.
Hence the World Cup circus has left town, the daily and prejudicial police leaks to the media have dried up, but Whelan remains in one of the more notorious of Rio’s prisons.
Brazil is entering elections season. Many people have points to make, positions to strike and anti-FIFA stances to uphold. Ticket touting, while a criminal scourge and a perpetual challenge (‘A little devil of society,’ as FIFA president Sepp Blatter would say), is not the only game – or headache – in town.
# # # # # # # # #