RIO DE JANEIRO — A World Cup ticket scalping case has revived a reputation FIFA tries hard to fight, and threatens to stain a tournament which has been better than critics expected.
Football’s international governing body and its president Sepp Blatter have tried to present a new face in recent years after so many allegations of vote-buying and top officials seeming entitled by seeking favors.
Though many rules and faces have changed at the game’s headquarters, a skeptical view that the old culture remains in the inner circle has been fueled by the arrest this week of a director from a longtime World Cup commercial partner.
Released from custody by Rio de Janeiro police early Tuesday, Ray Whelan returned to work within hours at the five-star hotel where Blatter stays and the MATCH group of companies operates during FIFA’s showpiece event.
The Copacabana Palace is also where police conducted parts of an undercover operation known as Jules Rimet — named after the former FIFA president who launched the World Cup in 1930.
Whelan, a brother-in-law of MATCH founders Jaime and Enrique Byrom, is suspected of providing tickets to a scalping ring dealing corporate hospitality packages at highly inflated prices. Reselling tickets for profit is illegal in Brazil.
Rights to the $600 million market in World Cup corporate tickets are owned by the MATCH Hospitality subsidiary. Its minority shareholders include a sports agency in Switzerland run by Philippe Blatter, a nephew of the FIFA president.
“MATCH have complete faith that the facts will establish that he (Whelan) has not violated any laws,” the company said.
The scalping probe is an embarrassment for FIFA and provoked awkward questions after weeks in which predicted street protests in 12 host cities didn’t materialize on mass scale.
FIFA has worked with the Byrom family from Mexico for more than 30 years and awarded contracts to the family’s companies since the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Asked Tuesday if Whelan’s accreditation would be revoked, FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer said football officials couldn’t act before getting a full report from police.
“We need all the proof,” Fischer told a news briefing. “We want the matter solved quickly and investigated to its fullest extent.”
Whelan was arrested Monday in his luxury suite at the hotel where police said they confiscated 82 tickets for upcoming matches, along with his computer, cellphone and other unspecified documents.
Police have described Whelan as the “facilitator” who allowed a large ring of scalpers to have access to tickets, which they re-sold at vastly inflated prices.
His attorney, Fernando Fernandes, told reporters his arrest was “illegal and absurd.”
Whelan, who is based in MATCH’s Rio office, will not be allowed to leave Brazil during the tournament. He was detained after the earlier arrests of 11 people, including Algerian national Mohamadou Lamine Fofana.
Police said Whelan was heard on wiretapped phone calls negotiating ticket prices with Fofana, a former player agent whose company is a MATCH Hospitality client.
The MATCH Hospitality subsidiary, which is based in Zurich, paid $120 million for exclusive rights to sell and market more than 400,000 corporate hospitality packages for this World Cup.
In 2011, FIFA extended MATCH Hospitality’s exclusive rights through the 2018 and 2022 World Cups without inviting rival bidders.
FIFA hailed that deal — which guaranteed $300 million plus a share of MATCH profits — as one which “further strengthens FIFA’s fight against ticket touts.”
Trying to distance Whelan from hospitality sales, FIFA and MATCH stressed that Whelan was a director of a subsidiary which has contracts to run accommodation, ticketing and IT services at this World Cup. MATCH Services will also organize hotels for FIFA, media and sponsors at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Separately Tuesday, Brazil’s federal police said on its website that an Italian and a French citizen, who jointly run a travel agency, were arrested at the international airport in Sao Paulo.
The statement said the two were carrying 48 tickets for the semifinal and final matches — tickets which belonged to “one of the big sponsors” of the World Cup.