Brazilian police have cracked an alleged ticket-scalping ring that experts say could have ties to senior people in scandal-plagued FIFA, soccer's governing body, and be worth as much as $96-million for this World Cup alone.
And they have done it almost in spite of themselves.
The resale of World Cup hospitality tickets – those bought by corporations, or given to national organizations and sponsors – through a chain of criminals has been widely suspected for years. International police forces, including Scotland Yard, have tried to crack it.
But when the scam was finally broken open, it was by low-level investigators at a tiny local Rio police station, who had no idea what they had stumbled upon, and had to rely on journalists to explain who some of the key figures were.
"How did a bunch of pé rapado policemen from Brazil do it?" the inspector in charge of the operation asked rhetorically on Monday, using a slang expression that means "shaved foot," or poor. He uttered an expletive and shrugged. "I don't know!"
Twelve people have so far been arrested, including Mohamadou Lamine Fofana, a man identified as a French-Algerian national who police initially believed was the kingpin. But on Monday, police arrested British national Raymond Whelan from the swanky Copacabana Palace, where he was staying alongside top FIFA officials, including president Sepp Blatter. The inspector, who asked not to be named, said that at least seven other people are still under investigation in the scam.
Mr. Whelan is a director of Match, a ticket-sales service that has the FIFA contract to sell hospitality packages. Match was also given the job of accrediting FIFA's hotels in Brazil, including the Palace suites where Mr. Blatter and the other executive stayed.
Mr. Whelan is charged with illegal ticket resale but was ordered released on $2,300 bail by a judge in the middle of the night, in a move that Brazilian media say suggests intervention from high places. Police retained his passport. Match said in a statement that he will return to work with the company's World Cup operation.
Police said he may also face charges including association with a criminal organization and collusion.
The investigation was built on wiretaps that yielded more than 50,000 call registers – that is, phone conversations, text messages and messages sent through smartphone apps such as WhatsApp – including, police say, 900 over 20 days between Mr. Whelan and Mr. Fofana alone. They say they have yet to review half of the registers.
In April, officers from the tiny Praca Da Bandeira station, near Rio's iconic Maracana stadium, were making a routine undercover investigation of cambistas, as scalpers are known, when they began to be offered World Cup tickets. "What can you get us?" the undercover officers asked.
The scalpers promised anything they wanted – VIP seats at the final, for example. Surprised that those seats were for sale on their sidewalk, the police began to tap the phones of the scalpers, which led them eventually to Mr. Fofana. Tracking his calls, they discovered that he was allegedly collecting tickets from Mr. Whelan, who was staying in the FIFA enclave at the Palace.
"Raymond denied that he negotiated with Fofana during the World Cup," said police commissioner Fabio Barucke. "Of that, we have proof that there were 900 calls during the event … He said he knew him because he is a very well known person who hung out at Copacabana Palace, with the football players, and that's why they knew each other. But he denies that in any of these 900 calls he has negotiated with him during the event."
One ticket among those recovered by police was in the name of FIFA vice-president Julio Grondona's son Humberto. Police say his role will be investigated.
FIFA says it cannot comment on the investigation but will take action against anyone found to be participating in illegal activity.
Those who watch FIFA – which has been accused of corruption at every level from match-fixing to bribery over choice in host countries – say this time it's different.
"It's more of the same from FIFA, except this time it's during the World Cup and they have all the recordings," said Jamil Chede, a correspondent with Brazil's Estadao newspaper, one of the journalists who inadvertently found himself becoming part of this story.
Mr. Chade was reporting on the initial arrests a week ago. The police at the tiny station noticed that, while they did not recognize any of the names in the recordings, he did. They pleaded for help deciphering the English and French in the recordings, since they speak neither language.
Police say Mr. Fofana had 64,000 tickets to sell, including some from most of the national soccer organizations, and from companies such as the giant Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. While the top price match ticket is worth $990, tickets for the July 13 final were being sold for as much as $25,000 last week and prices were rising. Any reselling of tickets above the face value is illegal in Brazil under laws designed to protect fans. There were more than three million tickets issued for all the games in this World Cup.
Andrew Jennings, a Scottish author and investigative journalist who has tracked FIFA for years (and been banned by the organization from all its events for his pains), said Rio police have made a critical breakthrough. "FIFA is a tight, small, unaccountable group," he said, and this is rare incident of casting light on some of its activities. Long after the winner of this year's Cup has been forgotten, "Brazil will be remembered for exposing the fraud," he said. "By accident or not, the cops have made a fantastic breakthrough – they must go on questioning Whelan about Blatter, the contracts, the connections."
As many as 40 per cent of tickets to FIFA events are illegally resold, Mr. Jennings reported in his book Omerta: Sepp Blatter's FIFA Organized Crime Family. The Brazilian police inspector said that Scotland Yard had called to express happy surprise at the arrests, saying that they had been investigating illegal FIFA resales for three years. Other international police forces who learned of the organization called to offer help, he said.
Mr. Chade said that in wiretaps that he heard, the suspects reassure each other that police in Rio never tap phones. "This is a powerful, globalized organization brought down by a little police office," he said. "They buy off Interpol but they forgot to buy off the local police."
Match, majority-owned by the Mexican brothers Jaime and Enrique Byrom, won exclusive rights to resell hospitality packages for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in an open tender in 2007. In 2011, that contract was extended until 2023 for all major FIFA events, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, in a deal worth at least $300-million for FIFA.
Mr. Whelan had been in Brazil for two years, police say, and he is married to a sister of the Byrom brothers. A five per cent stake of Match is owned by Infront Sports and Media; its president is Phillippe Blatter, the nephew of the FIFA president.
Mr. Fofana came to Brazil two months ago purely to operate the ticket resale ring, police say. His company, Atlanta Sportif Management, organizes friendly matches and consults on players sales, particularly among Middle Eastern teams.
With a report from Manuela Andreoni.