Executive freed as World Cup hospitality probes continue


(Adds context, details of investigation by antitrust authority)

By Brian Homewood

RIO DE JANEIRO, July 8 (Reuters) - Ray Whelan, the chief executive of a hospitality firm arrested in connection with an investigation into VIP ticket scalping at the World Cup, was released on Tuesday after spending the night in custody.

But his company, MATCH Services, remains at the centre of two investigations that once again raise questions about the business and commercial practices of FIFA, soccer's governing body and an organization long tarnished by allegations of corruption and a lack of transparency.

In addition to the ongoing police probe over a scheme to illegally resell tickets, Brazil's antitrust authorities for the past year have been investigating whether MATCH, appointed by FIFA to provide ticketing, accommodation and event information technology, unfairly sold hotel bookings at inflated prices.

While the ticketing investigation has gained steam over the past week, with the arrest of 11 suspected scalpers in addition to Whelan, Brazil's antitrust authority said it will continue analyzing MATCH hotel packages at least through the end of the tournament, which ends Sunday.

Cade, as the antitrust authority is known, said on Tuesday that the probe seeks to determine whether the prices charged by MATCH for some of its hotel packages, and exclusivity clauses that enabled the company to reserve large batches of rooms, had any adverse effect on overall pricing for World Cup lodging.

Though Cade said MATCH has cooperated with the investigation since it began, the authority in a statement Tuesday said it "considers it relevant to maintain the investigation open."

MATCH, for its part, in a statement said it followed "transparent" pricing practices and made block reservations in line with "standard practice for any major event."

Earlier Tuesday, MATCH said Whelan, an Englishman, was released in Rio de Janeiro and that he will assist police with further enquiries into the ticketing investigation.

That probe seeks to determine whether Whelan enabled a scalping ring by giving them access to tickets that were originally allocated to soccer federations and other VIPs but later resold in violation of Brazilian law.

"MATCH have complete faith that the facts will establish that he has not violated any laws," it said in a statement.

Whelan was arrested at Rio's beachfront Copacabana Palace hotel Monday as a result of the investigation, known as Operation Jules Rimet.

The probe has further sullied the reputation of FIFA, which has been subject to previous ticketing controversies at prior World Cups and faces allegations of bribery surrounding Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 tournament.

FIFA on Tuesday also said it is cooperating with Brazilian authorities.

Rio de Janeiro police said in a statement that Whelan will be expected to appear for further questioning at a date to be arranged.

He has been charged under the Brazilian Supporters' Statute with "supplying or facilitating the distribution of tickets for a price that is superior to the one printed on the ticket."

MATCH is the main provider of hospitality packages for the World Cup and paid $240 million for the exclusive rights to sell corporate hospitality at the 2010 World Cup and this one. (Additional reporting by Paulo Prada; Writing by Mike Collett, Editing by Nigel Hunt)

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