The Cup runneth over and over

World Cup scenes: Ethan Zindler reports on professional scalpers and amateur partyers in Marseille.

By Ethan Zindler
Published July 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

MARSEILLE, France; June 27; Italy vs. Norway: World Cup ticket scalpers, or "touts" as the British call them, are a unique breed of cretin. They are the first to greet you at the rail station upon arrival at any of the outlying French host cities. As I get off the train in Marseille they crowd the platform, offering tickets to tonight's round of 16 match for five times their face value.

Tout headquarters seem to be along the Champs Elysees, just below the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At any hour of the day or night you'll find them with a cell phone to their ears, pacing up and down the grand walkway. The average tout consists of the following: buzz haircut, polo shirt, shorts, sunglasses, waist pack, sunburn, terrible teeth and a cockney accent. These weasels make a fortune off people's die-hard passion for the game. They prey on widespread ignorance about ticket availability for the matches.

During the months prior to the Cup, there was tremendous controversy over ticket distribution. French organizers set aside a full 60 percent of all the seats for sale to French citizens. Another 17 percent were given to sponsors, Fifa (the international governing body of soccer) and other VIPs. That left a mere 23 percent of the tickets for supporters of the 31 other participating countries.

Fans in England, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere were furious. And recognizing a hot-button political issue, so were their elected officials. Ticket distribution was not just unfair, they said, but illegal under European Union law. After all, if all citizens of the E.U. belong to a common open market, don't they each have equal rights to the tickets? In January, after prodding by British officials and others, the E.U. threatened the French Organizing Committee (CFO) with a massive fine if it didn't take immediate steps to rectify the situation.

In response, the CFO announced its intention to sell 160,000 additional tickets directly to E.U. citizens via a special hot line. On April 22, the phone lines opened, and what followed was nothing short of chaos. British fans placed 15 million calls. Two million calls emanated from tiny Belgium. The Dutch phone system collapsed entirely under the volume of outgoing calls to France.

British television ran stories of heartbroken fans. One had taken the day off from work to hit the redial button thousands of times, then given up in frustration. Another had managed miraculously to get through, then been unable to purchase tickets because she didn't have the proper credit card (Mastercard is one of the event's sponsors). The committee had assigned only 90 operators to field incoming calls and, of those, 30 were assigned exclusively to fulfill French requests. Reporters trying to reach CFO officials through their office switchboard that day received busy signals. It seems committee staffers were themselves placing hundreds of outgoing calls to the ticket hotline, clogging their own system. Within two weeks all 160,000 of these emergency tickets were sold, and as of the beginning of the Cup all 2.5 million seats were officially claimed.

But that was by no means the end of the story. Thousands of fans, including large Belgian, Brazilian and Japanese contingents, flew to Paris for the Cup only to find that tickets promised them by their tour operators did not exist. One hotel had to call police to calm an irate crowd of Brazilians whose tickets for the opening match had not appeared. An American tour company had 15,000 tickets to late-round matches stolen from its company safe in Paris (what they were doing with so many tickets in their possession is still unclear). And an executive at ISL, the sports marketing agency that handled ticket distribution for the CFO, was arrested by French cops for selling tickets on the black market. In short, the entire process has been a disaster.

Conventional wisdom is that finding a ticket to a match is nearly impossible. Thus the vermin with cell phones along the Champs Elysees routinely sell unsuspecting Nigerian or American or Dutch supporters tickets at triple, quadruple or 10 times face value.

But right before game time you can often find the same touts or a local trying to unload seats at face value -- sometimes for even less. You would think this was the case only for obscure matches (how many people are dying to see Saudi Arabia square off against South Africa?), but there were plenty of tickets available on the street for France's opening game of the tournament -- and it's the home team.

The other day I took the metro to Paris's Parc des Princes with hopes of paying a little less than double price to the Nigeria-Bulgaria match. Instead, I was able to buy one of the best seats in the house -- for less than face value. Inside, a young American couple told me they'd shown up at France's game against Saudi Arabia the night before and bought two "Presidentiel" seats -- at cost -- from a tout. They ended up sitting three rows behind Michel Platini, French football legend and head of the CFO. (Last Friday at the England-Colombia game, 50 unsuspecting members of the English rabble bought black market seats and were startled to find themselves sitting in a VIP box adjacent to Prince Charles and his son Harry.)

How can this be? Here's one theory: French citizens and others hoarded tickets, buying more than they needed under the assumption that they could resell them at tremendous profit. Then came the deluge of media coverage detailing the shortage of tickets. That deterred the casual fan who might have caught the train from Antwerp, Barcelona or Milan to Paris, Toulouse or Marseille for a game.

So long as you're patient and willing to wait until just before game time, you can find an affordable ticket. But even three weeks into the tournament, most fans still don't know this. At the Nantes train station before the USA-Yugoslavia game, foot traffic on the platform slowed to a crawl as touts and ticket seekers haggled. A few moments later, two American college boys rejoiced, "We got tickets!" They had bought seats for 700 francs (about $115) apiece, or double face value. Later, outside the stadium, those same seats were available for less than half of face value.

"They won the game, but we're winning the party!"

That's how one Norwegian fan describes the massive outdoor beer bash at
Marseille's Vieux Port hours after the match. Indeed, Norway did lose the
game to Italy, a drab affair between two defense-oriented sides. By the end,
frustrated French fans had booed the Italians off the field.

But now the Norwegians are winning the party -- much more decisively than they
lost the match, in fact. You would never guess that earlier today they were
eliminated from the Cup. "Stand UP, if you Love Norway. Stand UP, if you
Love Norway" and "Ohhhh-lé, olé, olé, olé," they sing over and over again for
hours. Blond and tanned and wearing national team jerseys and shorts, 150 of
them dance on tables and chairs in front of the Le Quai Restaurant and Bar
Glacier. A nearby sign reads, "Thank you all Norwegian Friends."

One supporter wearing a plastic Viking helmet and no shirt scales a nearby
10-foot phone booth. From on top, he bangs a small bongo drum and leads his
countrymen in a new round of songs, most of which I can't understand. Before
long, he's joined up there by a number of others. One waves a giant Norway

But a small counter-demonstration is under way. Ten Italians with Azurri
jerseys and green, white and red headbands have crashed the party. They
chant "EE-Tal-YAH, EE-Tal-YAH," then sing star striker Alessandro Del Piero's
name to the tune of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer."

One climbs the phone booth. He and a Norwegian put arms around each other's
shoulders and wave their respective flags in tandem. The crowd below roars.

By now, the party consists not only of Norwegians and Italians but Brazilians,
Scots, local North African Marseille youths and others, 20 of whom gather
near the base of the phone booth. They stand in two lines facing one another.
Each crosses his arms at the elbow, reaches out to the person across from him
and grabs hold of both their hands. An arm trampoline has been formed and
participants chant, "Jump! Jump! Jump!" to those above.

The Viking is the first to go. Arms outstretched, screaming, he does a stage
dive off the phone booth straight into the humanity. He is caught but the net
nearly breaks as the crowd wobbles under his weight. He emerges unhurt to
more cheers. Others decide to try this diving board out for themselves. Some
go belly-down, others do back flops instead.

Two young women wearing nothing more than Scotland flags as dresses dance
suggestively atop the phone booth. "Show us your ti-its," the men below sing.
They decline but flirtatiously egg on the crowd by hiking up the flags to
reveal more and more leg. Everyone wants them to jump but they're too scared.
A local kid is even more drunk than the rest and pulls one of them toward the
edge. The two stumble and go flying off the phone booth.

The human trampoline holds, but just barely. There is a mad scramble as the
pack of rabid men grope and grab at any part of the Scottish woman they can
get their hands on. She escapes breathless and scared but obviously also exhilarated.
Somehow the flag has stayed on.

By now, I'm standing directly at the base of the phone booth, photographing
the divers as they take off overhead into the crowd in front of me. But
above, a Norwegian fan is spraying us with a beer and he looks just a little
too unsteady for my liking. So I make my way off to the side -- just in time, as
it turns out.

Suddenly I hear a solid thud and what sounds vaguely like bones cracking.
Behind me, on the pavement where I just was, is the beer sprayer. He has
fallen off the phone booth and looks dazed. His friends look concerned and
tell him not to move. For just a moment the crowd shuts up. But in a flash
he's back on his feet. Thankfully, somebody has the good sense to end the
phone booth diving game.

It was on this very spot two weeks ago that English supporters clashed with
local police, throwing beer bottles and other projectiles. But on the
periphery of tonight's mayhem, local residents watch the proceedings with
nothing but detached amusement. One tells me he's "not worried at all because
these aren't the English." He says there are police here, just plainclothed.

In fact, there are plenty of other cops nearby. A police bus is parked no
more than a couple hundred meters away. Five or six riot cops stand outside
smoking cigarettes. The rest of their team dozes inside the bus.

Back in front of the Quai Restaurant, the party continues late into the night
as Norwegians and Italians sing together past 2 a.m. As I make my way through
the craziness, I suddenly feel a warm spray on my leg. A teenager in a
Scottish team jersey and goofy red wig is drunk off his ass. He looks at me
guiltily. I look down and realize that he's taking a whiz right in the midst
of everything.

That's my cue to call it a night. I head for the hotel.

Ethan Zindler

Ethan Zindler is a New York writer/photographer who has covered soccer for a variety of publications. Last summer, he spent five weeks in France at the men's World Cup writing dispatches for Salon's Wanderlust section.

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