Lesson #1: Don't Piss Off Brazil's Police
Lesson #2: No, Seriously, Just Don't
Concurrent with their country's hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazilian police initiated an investigation called, appropriately, Operation Jules Rimet.
Since selling tickets for more than face value is a crime in Brazil and since ticket scalping and the World Cup go together like strippers and dollar bills, it was a good bet that they'd be able to come up with a few people to arrest.
Fast forward to this morning down in Rio where even as you read this 64 year old Brit Ray Whelan, former agent for Sir Bobby Charleton and a Director of Match Services, FIFA's "Official Hospitality Services Provider" sits with a shaved head in an isolation cell inside the "notorious" Bangu maximum security prison, reportedly a really nasty place normally reserved for murderers, rapists and drug gangsters.
How he ended up there is a strange tale of arrogance, greed and stupidity; in other words, just another day at FIFA.
Somewhere in Port of Spain Jack Warner must be laughing his ass off.
Operation Jules Rimet kicked into high gear when undercover detectives identified a "gang" of around 30 people who were more or less openly peddling game tickets at astronomical prices. Some accounts suggest that the group pocketed an average of US$600,000 for each and every World Cup match (It's also being reported as €600,000 in various places. We strive for exactitude here.)
They quickly identified a shadowy French-Algerian "businessman" named Lamine Fofana as the head of the operation. They tapped his phone and followed him for almost three months as he drove around Rio in an official FIFA car (FIFA denies this, but the police say they have photos).
We should note that Match is actually two companies - Match Hospitality and Match Services - both owned by a pair of brothers from Mexico, Jaime and Enrique Byrom, although interestingly Sepp Blatter's nephew Philippe holds a minority ownership share. Whelan, the guy dodging roaches in that cell down in Rio, is married to the Byrom's sister.
Match Hospitality provides travel packages which can include access to private suites, VIP lounges, deluxe hotel accommodations and all the other things that what some people now call "the 1%" demand and are able to pay for.
On the company website they tell us that
"MATCH Hospitality specialises in providing turnkey solutions to major sporting events. We delivered the single biggest hospitality operation in sporting history at the Final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and managed the sales and operations for over 250,000 hospitality guests during the tournament period. Our Global Sales Network is unrivalled in providing optimum international reach for our clients and local access to customers in over 80 countries.
Match is contracted with FIFA the next two World Cups, the next two Women's World Cups and the next two Confederation Cups. How one manages to get FIFA's ExCo to grant you millions and millions of dollars in business well into the next decade is a topic I'll take a pass on right now.
The bottom line for Brazil is this: FIFA granted Match Hospitality roughly 12% of all World Cup seating, hundreds of thousands of seats.
(Match Services, also owned by the Byrom brothers, contracts with FIFA to provide on site services including IT management, ticketing, security and the like.)
Brazil says they have hundreds of phone transcripts of Fofana, Whelan and others discussing ticket distributions outside of the official Match channels, and that Fofana - who has no relationship with Match - made regular stops at the ultra-swanky Copacabana Palace Hotel, which was the headquarters for both FIFA and Match, and was seen leaving the premises with game tickets in boxes and large envelopes bearing imprinted Match logos.
Even more shocking than the sales themselves is that reportedly Whelan and Fofana - and possibly Match itself, it's not clear - were selling hospitality packages for an astonishing $24,000 per person and the only acceptable form of payment was cash in US dollars. How this amount of money got into (and out of) the country without being declared is another topic Brazil is interested in pursuing.
Even more intriguing is the informant who has reportedly told police that "someone inside FIFA" was behind the entire operation. Authorities say they have recordings of phone calls between FIFA officials and Fofana, and a police investigator told a reporter that "someone in Fifa facilitated the gang.”
A couple weeks ago, police felt they had enough evidence to start arresting people. 12 men, including Fofana and Whelan, were locked up and charged.
(In the understatement of the year, FIFA President Forever Sepp Blatter told the media “I know nothing”.)
But for some reason which has yet to be explained - some people suggest it involved phone calls from FIFA officials to high level Brazilian officials - Whelan was almost immediately released and returned to his suite at the Copacabana.
A day later, Rio police reappeared at the hotel to rearrest Whelan but, being forewarned somehow, closed circuit cameras show him escaping out a service entrance and disappearing into the streets.
Police were not pleased by this development and pressed Match to produce their missing corporate director. The Byroms told police that Whelan wasn't actually hiding from them, he was "with his attorney" and was working to clear his name.
The cops were not impressed and had a judge issue a "fugitive warrant".
Finally, four days later, it having become clear that there was no way to get Whelan out of the country short of stuffing him in a crate andshipping him to Miami, he surrendered to police in the company of his attorney who immediately tried to arrange for bail.
Brazil refused and then, instead of locking him up at the polite municipal jail where your basic nonviolent arrestee gets put - where Fofana and the others were held until they made bail - they tossed Whelan into a van and delivered him to Bangu maximum security where, after mandatory delousing, a cavity search and a quick head shave, he was slapped into solitary confinement where he's currently being held incommunicado and, as a former "fugitive", is ineligible for bail
Match Chairman and Whelan brother-in-law Jaime Byrom told The Guardian yesterday that he's pretty sure this whole thing is a case of "mistaken identity". They got the wrong guy, according to Byrom, and if they'd just bail him out he could help in the investigation and added:
“Our relationship with Fifa goes back over 20 years. We have worked for Fifa for 20 years. Not once has there been any indication or any incident that would compromise our relationship with Fifa, especially in the area of ticketing.
“If there was ever an instance when someone within Match was involved in unauthorised activities and if we had failed to identify such an activity, then certainly I would not need to be asked by Fifa to stop being responsible for enforcement. A ticketing company in the position Fifa has placed us in needs above all to have integrity.”
There's a lot more to come on this, and in the fullness of time Brazil's state prosecutor will undoubtedly get to the bottom of it all.
In the meantime, we do hope that Ray Whelan enjoys prison food. Brazil seems not to be in the mood to send him back to the Copacabana.
In somewhat-but-barely related news:
You'll have to forgive Brazil for concluding that FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke is an idiot.
Back in 2003, in the face of serious and mounting violence at football matches around that fair land, Brazil banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in stadiums during matches.
Now as a practical matter this didn't really solve much; as they have pretty much everywhere else this kind of policy is established, Brazilian fans simply spent more time getting sauced just outside the stadium and then rushing in drunk as hell just in time for the first whistle.
But when the 2014 Cup was awarded to Brazil, one of the understandings was that the government would waive the alcohol ban in deference to FIFA major sponsor Budweiser.
Unfortunately they had a subsequent change of government which decided that this was an issue that would have to be submitted to the national legislature which was not in much of a mood to change their law to suit FIFA.
As the issue was coming to a head in 2012 - we discussed it in this very space at the time - Valcke began issuing vague threats suggesting that this was non-negotiable and if Brazil wouldn't bend then maybe FIFA would begin looking for an alternate host.
Valcke was quite blunt: "Beer must be sold" at the World Cup he was quoted as telling them.
Brazil finally gave in but a lot of people felt they had been bullied by a bunch of rich Europeans in order to appease a rich American corporation. With, it should be noted, justification.
So you'll forgive Brazil for being gob-smacked at what Valcke told SporTV in the wake of several in-stadium incidents which were blamed on drunkenness:
“I’m worried by the alcohol. Perhaps many people were drunk and, when drinking, violence tends to increase.”
Gosh, ya think?