Ticket Chaos – an ICT failure or FIFA greed?

by Prof Barry Dwolatzky

Ninety thousand “new” World Cup ticket went on sale at 9:00am on Friday 28th May at FIFA ticketing centres around South Africa. Such is the passion and excitement around the upcoming World Cup that hundreds of people started forming queues on Thursday morning at the ticketing centres. There was a festive atmosphere as supporters braved winter weather spending the night in the queue as they waited for the centres to open.

By 9:30am the mood had changed to one of anger …. the IT systems supporting the sale of tickets had “crashed”. By late on Friday morning police had to be called to bring things under control. By 6pm on Friday many people, after queuing for nearly two days, had walked away with no tickets. FIFA Secretary General, Jérôme Valcke, apologised for the inconvenience. He blamed “technical problems”, promised to get a detailed report from FIFA’s “service provider”, and then went on to his next meeting.

Frankly I think that this is simply not acceptable!!

Let’s unpack what happened. More than 2 months ago FIFA announced that nearly half a million unsold tickets for the World Cup would be sold “over the counter”.  On 15th April the first batch of these tickets went on sale at FIFA ticketing centres, some selected branches of Shoprite Checkers supermarkets and at branches of FNB. It was a disaster! The system “crashed” and – as we saw last Friday – people who had queued for hours had to endure frustration and chaos. Jérôme Valcke promised to sort things out.

How is it possible then that 6 weeks later the same thing happened? What are these “technical problems” and why weren’t they solved?

I’m willing to concede that the 15th April crash may have taken FIFA’s IT service provider by surprise. It was never envisaged that “over the counter” ticket sales would be provided for. This represented a new requirement and the system would have needed to be changed. In implementing these changes, any number of assumptions could have been incorrect. Server hardware, communications channels or transactional database systems may have been inadequately sized to cope with the volumes of traffic. There also is evidence that the systems were not tested properly. 

But what about the “crash” on May 28th? I would expect that information collected from the 15th April would have been analysed and appropriate changes made to the system. There would also have been enough knowledge available to set up valid test cases. In software engineering terms I cannot accept that the system “crashed” on May 28th .

I have two theories that may explain this recent “crash”:

Theory 1 :FIFA’s IT Service Provider is incompetent

Who is this Service Provider? My answer to this question is based purely on a few hours of surfing the web. If I have my facts wrong maybe someone can correct me.

The first name that comes up is “MATCH Services AG”. It is a company based in Zurich Switzerland and is run by the FIFA President’s son-in-law. It provides FIFA with “ticketing, accommodation and event information technology services” [http://www.match-ag.com] . MATCH has a strategic partnership with the professional services company “Eurotech Global Sports AG”, also based in Switzerland.

It seems to me that Eurotech Global Sports [http://www.eurotech-gs.com] is the “Service Provider” ultimately responsible for the IT system that crashed on 15th April and again on 28th May. On the Eurotech GS website one reads that it’s “staff has event experience in 15 countries in the past 11 years”, and that it is “dedicated to providing high value-added planning, project management and operations support for the implementation and deployment of IT services in large-scale events.” We are told that Eurotech GS “specializes in assisting … international sports federations [amongst others] … with unique IT requirements”. 

I’ve even been able to put some names to the key IT experts on the Eurotech Team. We have Jason Anderson [responsible for development and quality assurance when he worked for EDS], Tim Cromie [quality assurance and applications manager during the 2006 World Cup in Germany], Paul Leckie [ a “proven track record of success in delivering IT solutions in complex, high visibility, high risk environments”] and Dave Schoonaert [ with 13 years of “designing, developing and implementing scalable, flexible, and reusable systems”.] 

So – do Jason, Tim, Paul and Dave have the experience and competence to spec, build and test a system that can cope with “over the counter ticket sales”? Based on the information I’ve found on each of them, I’m confident that they would be able to deal with the technical challenges quite easily. 

I therefore don’t subscribe to Theory 1. 

Theory 2: FIFA, or MATCH, are not willing to pay the cost of solving the problems

Assuming that there is a technical solution to the problem that caused the “crash” of 15th April, and assuming that the Eurotech GS Team of Jason, Tim, Paul and Dave, were able to design a fix to the problem, why wasn’t it implemented in time for the 28th May release of 90,000 additional tickets?

My theory is that the solution came with a price tag, and MATCH and/or FIFA looked at the price and decided it wasn’t worth fixing.

Why should they make such a decision? Well, firstly the tickets have still been sold. The hype and negative publicity surrounding some poor unfortunate soccer fanatics coming to blows at ticketing centres certainly hit the headlines around the world. The net result was that people went on-line and bought tickets.

Secondly, do FIFA really care about people queuing for tickets in South Africa? There is ample evidence that we South Africans are not all that important in FIFA’s global vision. Jérôme Valcke’s apologies and promises to sort things out cost FIFA nothing. Investing in technical solutions to solve the problems with the IT systems comes off someone’s bottom line.

“You must be crazy” I can hear some FIFA executive saying to the Eurotech GS team, “why should we spend a million dollars on a fix to the IT systems. When fights break out at the ticketing centres we’ll just call the cops and then roll out Jérôme Valcke to look concerned and apologetic. That’s a much more cost-effective solution.” 

Am I being unfair to FIFA and MATCH. From an ICT point of view what do you think? Whatever it is, having a highly visible system crash so dramatically is bad news for software engineers and ICT professionals anywhere in the world.

5 Replies to “Ticket Chaos – an ICT failure or FIFA greed?”

  1. Adrian Schofield

    You raise two interesting questions, Barry. The first is the professionalism of the “service provider” – did they simply bring along the system that handled the German event and expect it to work here? Did they do any serious research to establish a fresh set of user requirements, based on knowledge of the South African environment? (I was involved in one of the workshops that Match conducted in South Africa when they first arrived here – but I am not sure they took much notice of our input.) Did they modify their system as they learned from experience? Failure on any of these counts should be seriously embarrassing to them as professional practitioners.

    The second is whether the FIFA/Match relationship has any vision beyond self-sustainability. There are parallels with dominant nations, dominant corporations – even with dominant religions. Convinced that they have pre-emptive rights to exist and to operate, their leaders belittle those who ask questions or offer alternatives, and they brush off failures. They draw in vast amounts of money and promise success – but will never be held accountable for the failures they leave behind.

    Perhaps South Africa can capitalise on its “South-South” relationship with Brazil to give our South American friends a “heads-up” for 2014.

  2. Peter Scheffel

    Maybe a local ticket provider would have been the real answer, not to provide a new channel, which made absolutely no sense for the bank (FNB) and others concerned, as their branches looked like a voting station in 1994. A local ticket provider would also have invested in South African infrastructure.

  3. Prof Barry Dwolatzky

    Peter is absolutely correct. A local ticket provider with existing infrastructure, distribution channels, tried and tested software, etc. would have been much more sensible.

    As Adrian says MATCH never seemed committed to work in partnership with the local ICT sector.

    Brazil – take note!!

  4. Jason

    I know you’re just doing a blog here with no real obligation to fact check or be truthful, but I just thought I just want to point out that all of your assumptions above are incorrect. Most importantly (to me anyway) Dave, Tim, Paul and myself had nothing to do with ticketing.


  5. Prof Barry Dwolatzky

    I certainly apologise to Jason Anderson, and the other people named in this posting on my blog, if my comments are interpreted in any way to cast doubt on their professionalism or competence. I said – or I think I said – that they would have been technically able to sort out the ticketing problems, but someone (and I named “FIFA”) decided that the economics of doing so wouldn’t make sense.

    Jason – since I am eager to check my facts – could you cast some light on who was responsible for the IT systems that support the ticketing?


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