Tourism of a different kind

Last Updated : 29 March 2014, 15:29 IST
Last Updated : 29 March 2014, 15:29 IST

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Hours before last Sunday’s Clásico, the match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Juan Manuel Alfaro strode into the business lounge of a hotel near Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

Alfaro, a 30-year-old from Buenos Aires who had arranged through Viagogo, an online ticketing company, to attend the game, picked up a season membership card belonging to a Madrid fan, identified on the card only by a serial number. In addition to the 375 euros (about $518) that Alfaro had paid online, the transaction involved a credit card deposit for about another $345 to guarantee that Alfaro would return the membership card to the hotel after the match.
Hours later, from the top of the stands, Alfaro watched as Barcelona, led by its Argentine star, Lionel Messi, completed a 4-3 victory behind Messi’s three goals.

Alfaro was delighted. “I would really do anything to get to see Messi play,” he said.
He was not alone. The latest Clásico was played in front of a capacity crowd, announced at 81,044, that included thousands of foreign fans with no links to Spain or to either club. But they had one thing in common: All were willing to pay hefty sums to watch some of the world’s best players in one of the year’s marquee games.
In Spain, a long and painful economic crisis coupled with the chance to make a quick profit has created a ready market for such fans. Many season-ticket holders, however passionate about their clubs, now choose to sell their tickets for marquee matchups like the Clásico to agencies and other middlemen, who resell them worldwide.

The reselling of tickets by otherwise faithful local fans is, of course, a trend not limited to Spanish soccer. Alfaro said he had spent the past month in Europe “only to watch soccer,” having also bought tickets online for two games at Barcelona as well as a German clash between Bayern Munich and Schalke, for which he occupied the seat of a Bayern season ticket holder. Soccer tourism is also increasingly common in the stadiums of Britain’s Premier League.
But the new reality might have been most obvious near the Bernabéu last Sunday, where conversations in English, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and German competed with those in Spanish, and spectators bought scarves that blended the colors of Real Madrid and Barcelona — game-day souvenirs that each club’s die-hard fans would probably never be willing to buy.
“That shows just how neutral the crowd is,” Alfaro said.
Real Madrid would not estimate how many foreigners filled the Bernabéu. But the seats are almost entirely in the hands of Madrid’s season ticket holders, a spokeswoman said, so “only a few” can be bought directly from the club for such a big game.

For Barcelona, 85,000 of the roughly 99,000 seats in the team’s stadium, Camp Nou, are held by season ticket holders. Fans can sell their tickets back to the club, which will then put them up for sale and split the revenue, 50-50, with the ticket holder.
The last time the Clásico was held at Camp Nou, the club sold 17,388 tickets, of which 8,366 came from season ticket holders who opted for the sell-back option.

Barcelona said that it considered any other form of secondary-market sale illegal and that it had no estimate of how many foreigners actually ended up inside the stadium. The club’s museum, however, had 1.5 million visitors last year.

Carmit Hoomash, an Israeli business consultant, said she brought her 8-year-old son, Jonathan, because “it was his dream to see this game.” Their four-day stay in Madrid cost her nearly $7,000, she said, including about $1,400 for the two tickets she had bought over the phone five months earlier from a Spanish ticketing agency, Entradas.com. As a deposit to guarantee the return of the tickets, she handed over her passport.

Ido Veg, chief operating officer of Issta Sport, a travel agency in Tel Aviv, estimated that as many as 3,000 Israelis attended Sunday’s Clásico. Issta alone sold about 1,000 tickets for the game, at an average price of about $900 each, but often packaged with flights and hotel accommodations.

“We are paying much more than the face value of the ticket, and then the client is paying much more than that,” Veg said.

Still, Israeli interest in Spain’s biggest teams “has just gone crazy in the last three years,” he said, particularly to watch Barcelona, which has a stronger brand than Madrid in Israel.
Veg said his company used partners in Spain to acquire “only official” tickets.

“I think the most important thing for Real Madrid and Barcelona is that somebody fills each seat and cheers the players,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter whether that somebody is called Juan Pablo or Ido Veg from Israel.”

Increasingly important for this worldwide fan base are online ticketing companies like Viagogo, which is headquartered in Switzerland but operates across 50 markets. It charges a fee of 15 percent of the ticket price to the buyer and 10 percent to the seller.
Viagogo would not disclose how many ticket transactions it handled ahead of the Clásico, but a spokesperson said that the company acted only as a marketplace, connecting individual buyers and sellers, and that “importantly, we do not buy and sell tickets ourselves.”
Hoomash, the Israeli consultant, said she liked soccer “thanks to my son.” She called the Clásico “a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like watching a great ballet.”
As for the crowd, she said: “I was surprised by the diversity of the audience. There were really people from everywhere.”

Published 29 March 2014, 15:29 IST

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