World Cup ticket collectors savor treasure hunt as they fight for authentic memorabilia
Mohammed Abdullateef attended his first World Cup four years ago in Russia, where he had to settle for watching most of the games on TV.
“It was difficult,” he remembered, “to get a ticket.”
Talk about ironic.
Few people on the planet have more World Cup tickets than Abdullateef, whose collection numbers 1,200 and counting. He has tickets to all but one World Cup game played since 1958. For the inaugural tournament in 1930, when tickets were sold in three categories, he has all three, plus an Associated Press media credential.
He even has tickets to games that were never played, like a Germany-Switzerland knockout-round match from 1938 that was originally scheduled for two dates, and the final in 1982, when Abdullateef said tickets for a backup date were printed but never used.
However, as Moscow proved, he doesn’t do quite as well with games that haven’t been played.
“We went to the fan zone,” he said. “Sometimes in the hotel we were watching.”
Abdullateef declines to say what the collection has cost him or what it would be worth if he tried to sell it. But then money wasn’t what drove his interest in the first place.
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“I am crazy about the World Cup,” said Abdullateef, 50, who was hooked on the tournament after watching a game from the 1982 competition on television as a boy.
He wasn’t crazy enough to start collecting tickets until 2010 though, the year Qatar was awarded the rights to host this year’s tournament in Doha.
“When it was announced, I could not believe, I could not imagine, the World Cup would come here. Because I know the meaning of the World Cup,” Abdullateef said over coffee in the sun-splashed lobby of Doha’s pyramid-shaped Sheraton Hotel on the banks of the Persian Gulf. “So of course I was excited.”
The seed had actually been planted more than a decade and a half earlier, when Saudi Arabia became the first Arab country to reach the knockout round of a World Cup. A memorabilia dealer in the U.S., who Abdullateef believes didn’t know the difference between Saudi Arabia and neighboring Qatar, sent him a ticket from the Saudis’ opening game along with pictures of some players.
“I still have this ticket,” said Abdullateef, a telecom engineer and political cartoonist. “But I never thought about collecting tickets. I was collecting books. I like to read about the World Cup.”
That interest led him to a forum online, where he stumbled into a conversation about ticket collectors.
“So the idea came to me to collect one ticket from each, from 1930 until 2010,” he said. “I started searching eBay. Especially eBay.”
Abdullateef said collecting most World Cup memorabilia, especially tickets, would be all but impossible without the internet. His original plan was to collect just one ticket from each of the 21 tournaments, but as more and more tickets became available, he decided to expand his search to include at least one ticket from all 900 World Cup matches.
He wasn’t the only one with that hobby.
“Ticket collecting is not only a thing, but was arguably the hottest subgenre of the pandemic era in the sports collectibles marketplace,” said Chris Ivy, director of sports category for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. “Many collectors compete to create the most comprehensive and highest-graded collections in various themes.”
Abdullateef estimates his collection, which fills 12 albums and is kept in a safe, is about 95% of the way there, but concedes it may never be complete. Still, it may be rivaled only by that of Italian soccer fan Matteo Melodia, who has more than 6,000 tickets from World Cups, European championships, Italian national team matches and even club games featuring his favorite team, AC Milan.
Melodia began collecting as a boy 35 years ago, after a friend gave him a Manchester United ticket. He started with English club games, but because his family traveled extensively, his focus quickly expanded. Four years ago Melodia, a retired police officer, gathered his collection in book form in “World Cup Tickets 1930-2018.”
Melodia said his World Cup collection is missing 19 games, many from the 1950 tournament in Brazil, when games were played far from the major population centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Tickets from the 1934 World Cup in Italy and the 1938 tournament in France are also scarce since many were lost in the destruction of World War II.
Filling in the gaps, Abdullateef said, can require some detective work.
“You have the list of the World Cup games and you know in which city they were played,” he said.
But that’s not always where the tickets are found.
“It can be someone from Belgium and he has something from France,” Abdullateef said.
For collectors the most sought-after tickets aren’t the ones from games everyone remembers. For the 1950 final in Brazil, for example, nearly 200,000 tickets were sold while tickets to the 1966 final in London, where England won its only title, quickly became keepsakes. As a result, they aren’t rare.
However the 1966 group-play game between North Korea and Italy, played before 17,829 fans in Middlesbrough, was soon forgotten — as were the tickets, which are now hard to find.
But just because the tickets are rare doesn’t make them valuable, Ivy said. Often, it’s just the opposite.
“Based on our experience the championship games and those featuring the debut of iconic players or documenting historic moments are highly coveted,” he said. “A large percentage of World Cup matches would be fairly meaningless from a historical perspective. Finals are likely worth many multiples of what group-stage tickets would command.”
Which is fine with Melodia who, like Abdullateef, didn’t get into collecting to get rich.
“Money is the absolutely the last thing in the passion of collecting,” he said when asked what his collection was worth. “Passion has no equal in money.”
Still, some tickets can fetch high prices. The Holy Grail of World Cup collectibles is a ticket from the 1934 final in Rome. Only three or four tickets to that game are believed to exist and Melodia and Abdullateef each have one; the Qatari’s is signed by three Italians who played in the game. The ticket cost 60 lira in 1934; Abdullateef said he bought it on eBay for $5,800, which he considers a steal.
“The guy,” he says of the seller, “maybe his grandfather died or something and [he thought] it’s just a ticket. So he booked as a starting price $120. He didn’t know the value.”
“You have to know the trick of the bidding,” he said. “At the last second you have to bid to not give [a] chance to the others.”
Politicians can also hamper collectors. A woman in Uruguay once offered to sell Abdullateef tickets from the first World Cup but the government insisted the rare treasures had to remain in the country and blocked the sale.
However the biggest danger for collectors are fake tickets, particularly for the tournaments played between 1950 and 1962. Abdullateef said he found out he had been scammed when he emailed photos of some of his tickets to a collector in the U.K.
“He said, ‘This is fake, this fake, this is original,’” he recalled. “He started to teach me how to know. He gave me the key.”
Abdullateef quickly became so adept at spotting fakes that while visiting a FIFA exhibition in Russia four years ago, he told a friend many of the tickets were forgeries.
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“He said, ‘What, you know better than FIFA?’,” Abdullateef recalled. “He didn’t believe me.”
Nor did FIFA. But after Abdullateef told them how he knew, FIFA wrote back to say he was right and deleted photos of the tickets from social media posts.
Abdullateef eventually got tickets to a couple of games in Russia, the only World Cup matches he’s seen in person. He plans to attend both semifinals this December in Qatar.
But the owner of one of the planet’s most extensive collections of World Cup tickets said he doesn’t have one for either of those games. Admission in Qatar will be handled through mobile apps, which may be safer and more secure but will make collecting those tickets impossible.
“The migration to mobile apps will be the final nail in the coffin,” Ivy said. “The important surviving tickets will always be desirable and valuable and will likely continue the rising trend that sports collectibles have enjoyed.
“Though we’re sure to lament the loss of tangible mementos of iconic sporting moments to come.”