FIFA president Sepp Blatter and British executives have been dragged into a £60million World Cup ticket-touting scandal.
Sir Bobby Charlton’s former travel agent Ray Whelan was released on bail yesterday after being arrested at a luxury Rio hotel and accused of involvement in a major ticketing scam.
He was ordered to hand over £2,900 bond as well as his passport as detectives press ahead with their three-month investigation into alleged widespread World Cup touting.
But prosecutors condemned his release as ‘absurd’, describing him as their ‘prime suspect’ alleged to have masterminded a multi-million-pound ticketing scam.
The affair threatens to cause further embarrassment for beleaguered Fifa boss Mr Blatter, whose nephew Philippe runs a firm which jointly owns the company at the centre of the scandal.
Other ticketing agencies also embroiled - and yesterday barred from selling packages for remaining World Cup fixtures - include some who handled sales at the London 2012 Olympics.
Ticketing fraud experts warned the small, often-incestuous number of firms tending to monopolise contracts for major sporting events made abuse inevitable.
Whelan, 64, is an accommodation director of corporate hospitality providers Match Services - a key commercial partner for football’s world governing body Fifa and part of the Cheshire-based events firm Byrom Group.
He was arrested on Monday night at the five-star Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio, where he was staying alongside the likes of Mr Blatter, Prince Albert of Monaco and other senior Fifa and corporate executives.
Officers last week detained 11 people as part of a three-month probe called ‘Operation Jules Rimet’ - after the former Fifa president who gave his name to the first World Cup trophy.
The alleged ringleader of the latest ‘scam’ is a 57-year-old French-Algerian named Mohamadou Lamine Fofana – who was also staying at the Copacabana Palace.
His company Atlanta Sportif is accused of having secured tickets and packages from Match which they then illegally resold.
Police are now analysing calls they say they recorded between Whelan and Fofana, among about 50,000 taped phone conversations.
Fifa have tried to distance themselves from the scandal, praising police for their work and revealing their willingness to co-operate.
Whelan’s lawyer Fernando Fernandes yesterday described his arrest as ‘illegal and absurd’ and his employers said: ‘Match have complete faith that the facts will establish that he has not violated any laws.’
Rio prosecutor Mark Kac, however, called the release ‘absurd’, adding: ‘We are really upset with this decision.
‘This gang moved millions. Now the prime suspect is loose. He was released based on nothing.’
Match have, meanwhile, suspended corporate packages allocated to three secondary ticketing agencies: Reliance Industries, Pamodzi and former London 2012 contractors Jet Set Sports.
Match Hospitality were allocated 445,500 of the 3million-plus 2014 World Cup tickets made available.
Any unsold corporate hospitality tickets are meant to be returned to Fifa to make available to the public.
Reselling World Cup tickets for profit is both against Fifa rules and illegal in Brazil.
Match Hospitality and Match Services are two subsidiaries of the Cheadle, Cheshire-based Byrom Group, set up by two Mexican brothers and closely involved with Fifa since the 1986 World Cup.
Philippe Blatter is chief executive of sports marketing company Infront, another Fifa commercial partner and which also has a shareholding in Match Hospitality.
Infront yesterday issued a statement insisting they ‘only’ held five per cent of shares and Philippe Blatter had no operational involvement or personal stake in Match.
He is not the only relative of a senior Fifa official to find himself drawn into a ticketing controversy, however.
Humberto Grondona, son of Fifa senior vice-president Julio Grondona from Argentina, has been accused at this World Cup of selling tickets for profit.
Disgraced former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner and his son were found to have made £500,000 by selling 5,400 tickets acquired from Byrom for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Jet Set and sister company Cosports were among the ticketing agencies used by London 2012 organisers.
Cosports were at the centre of controversy two years ago when it emerged tickets they sold to some British customers - at a 20 per cent premium - were originally allocated to official sponsors and should not have been made available.
The suspended agency Pamodzi is run by Pape Massata Diack, son of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Senegalese president Lamine Diack.
The IAAF president was disciplined by the IOC in 2011, along with Fifa vice-president Issa Hayatou, for receiving money from the now-defunct sports marketing company ISL in an alleged ‘kickbacks’ scandal.
Investigator Reg Walker, from the UK-based Iridium Consultancy, told Metro: ‘The ticketing for sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics needs to be much more open, competitive and transparent.
‘The lengthy contracts given by Fifa and the IOC give certain people incredible amount of power.
‘In the end the only people who suffer are the genuine fans without deep pockets and priced out of attending.’