RIO DE JANEIRO – After an overnight flight from the United States, Greg Thomas swigged a beer Wednesday afternoon on a sidewalk near Rio's famed Maracana stadium and raised his arm high into the air with four fingers displayed to attract scalpers who might sell him and three friends tickets to get into the Ecuador-France World Cup game.
They were willing to pay about $500 each, but the asking price from scalpers working the crowds and dodging police was $1,000 per ticket just before the game started. That didn't leave Thomas angry, but wondering whether he and his old college buddies would manage to get into a game during their reunion for a one-week Brazil soccer trip.
"Scalpers are scalpers, they're going to gouge you wherever you go," said Thomas, 33, of Denver, Colorado. "And remember, this is the World Cup."
The intense search for tickets outside Maracana was a lot tougher Wednesday because police boosted security after 88 ticketless Chilean fans broke through barriers at the stadium's media entrance last week and rampaged through the press center, busting down temporary walls while trying to find a way into the stands.
As fans from around the world held up hand-scrawled signs looking for tickets, police identified scalpers by watching for tickets and money changing hands among the hordes of fans arriving at the stadium's main entrance points. They took into custody sellers from countries ranging from Britain to Russia accused of trying to unload tickets for prices higher than the official FIFA price range of $90 to $175.
Brazilian scalpers got creative in response, finding ticket buyers close to the stadium and then accompanying them outside the police perimeter to strike deals at a nearby gas station.
Among them was Norwegian security company manager Marten Skjelvik, who managed to get two tickets for $900, but acknowledged taking a big risk to do so. He only had about half of the money on him and the gas station ATM didn't work with his bank card, so Skjelvik agreed to drive around Rio in a taxi with two friends of the scalper in search of an ATM that would work. Skjelvik's Norwegian friend stayed with the scalper who had the tickets.
The gas station is near a sprawling hillside Rio slum, and Skjelvik was worried that's where they were headed. He felt safer when the cab started heading downtown, but got nervous again when his card didn't work at another ATM. The men started talking loudly among themselves in Portuguese. Finally, another ATM spit out money, and the men took him back to close the deal.
"I only did this because I really wanted to see the match," said Skjelvik, 32, who didn't mind paying more than the official FIFA rate because scalping "happens everywhere."
Other fans, particularly from Latin American countries, were getting desperate as game time approached and they couldn't afford the inflated prices.
Ecuadorean discotheque manager Jonathan Maffare and five friends who came with him to Brazil had enough money to pay $400 per ticket but were only getting offers of $1,000 each from Brazilian scalpers. While they could have pooled their money so a few could buy tickets, a decision was made that all would go or none would. They took their anger out on Brazilian government officials who worked hard to pitch the country as a great place for the World Cup.
"Brazil isn't coming through with the sales pitch it used to get the cup," Maffare said. "We thought prices for tickets would be at least double what FIFA was selling them for, but not triple or more."
Selling tickets to sporting events for prices higher than face value is a crime in Brazil punishable by up to two years in prison. Police arrested more than 50 people from 17 different countries for scalping around Maracana at the first two games there. They did not have a number of arrests available for Wednesday's game, said police Lt. Col. Marcelo Rocha.
Those arrested for scalping were taken to police stations and released after signing a document pledging to show up for a court date.
Online commerce in Brazil isn't as well-entrenched as it is in the United States and other countries. Though some ticket resellers advertise World Cup tickets, the sites are in Portuguese and Brazilians themselves frequently don't trust them as much as buying tickets in person.
Another impediment to online World Cup sales in Brazil is that most online purchases must be made via electronic transfer from Brazilian bank accounts or credit cards.
Associated Press writer Emma Santos contributed to this story from Rio de Janeiro