ITV gave Robbie Earle 400 World Cup ticketsBy Jason Lewis, Mail on Sunday Security Editor
Last updated at 11:14 PM on 19th June 2010
A top ITV executive – one of its four directors of news and sport – helped organise Earle’s massive allocation for 11 high-profile matches, including England’s group games, with a face value of £70,000.
In contrast, the BBC applied for only 200 tickets for the whole tournament, including 20 seats for the final which will be distributed by a staff lottery.
In an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, ex-footballer Earle claims that he told ITV the seats were for a ‘close friend’ for use by his family and friends and ‘business clients’.
But a Mail on Sunday investigation has established that the friend, Keith Higgins, has also regularly been involved in the unofficial sale of tickets for sold-out international sporting events, concerts and West End shows – including supplying them to a top political public relations firm with close links to the Labour Party.
Earle says he had no idea of his friend’s business activities and would never have risked his reputation in football by allowing tickets in his name to be sold on.
Last night, football supporters’ groups said the case highlighted how the World Cup organisers favoured sponsors and broadcasters over real fans.
Kevin Miles, of the Football Supporters Association, said: ‘The big issue here is why FIFA gives less than half the tickets at the World Cup to real fans.
‘It lavishes tickets on corporate sponsors and broadcasters and then those seats go unused or are sold on the black market.’
There are strict rules on the re-sale of tickets because of fears over hooliganism, crime and terrorism, yet ITV News Group director Guy Phillips agreed to Earle’s request for the huge number of tickets – including supplying 40 seats with a face value of around £600 each for the World Cup Final on July 11.
And despite the large numbers of tickets involved, ITV says it did not expect the tickets to be passed on.
The revelations come after ITV sacked the ex-footballer from its team covering the tournament in South Africa after a large number of his tickets were used in a so-called ‘ambush marketing’ stunt by a Dutch brewery.
He claims no one at ITV questioned why he wanted so many tickets and that he had volunteered that he was passing them on to a friend and that the friend was using them for his own friends and family and business clients.
‘I told them that I was giving them to a friend and I even asked if he could pay ITV directly for the tickets he had,’ said Earle.
ITV rejects this claim, saying that Earle was given a bill for the tickets when he picked them up from its offices last month and that it would never have agreed to accept payment from a third party.
Earle, who was awarded the MBE in 1999 and had worked for ITV Sport for nine years covering top European and international matches around the world, says that earlier this year he had sent ITV an itemised list of all the games he wanted tickets for.
This list included England’s group stage games against the USA, Algeria and Slovenia, other top games including those involving Holland in the early stages of the tournament, and more tickets for the later knockout games in which England were expected to feature and large numbers for the semi-final and final.
‘But early last year ITV got in touch and said I was getting almost all the tickets I had asked for. The total cost was around £65,000 to £70,000. At this point Keith realised he had asked for too many tickets and I asked ITV if I could cut the number I was taking. But they told me I couldn’t as they had been ordered and I’d have to take them.’
‘For the other two matches – the Semi-Final on July 6th and the Final on July 11th – we can confirm that you will receive 40 of the 50 tickets you have requested for each match.
‘We are hopeful that we will be able to give you the extra ten for each match nearer the time.’
FIFA’s terms and conditions ban the transfer or sale of tickets without the organisers’ consent. It also prohibits ‘Ambush Marketing and Other Marketing Activities’.
The rules also required ITV, as the Ticket Applicant, to ‘provide a copy of these general terms and conditions to the individuals receiving tickets’ from it.
ITV says that Earle was spoken to on at least three occasions and also sent several letters, including one in May, reminding him that he could not sell on the tickets and that they were to be used only by him and his close family and friends.
Earle claims he had no idea that Mr Higgins intended to sell the tickets and says that he told him the huge number of seats were for his friends and family and clients in the ‘music business’.
‘He assured me from the outset that there was no way he was going to sell these tickets,’ he said.
‘I knew it was my reputation on the line and he knew that too. But he is
a friend and I trusted him when he said the tickets would never be out of his control. He has badly let me down and cost me my job at ITV, where I have been for nine years.’
Earle described Mr Higgins as a ‘very close friend’ but could not say what he did for a living.
He said: ‘He does something in the music business. He is some kind of public relations man, something like that. I don’t know exactly.
He said that Mr Higgins had previously supplied him with tickets for West End shows and concerts ‘through his music business contacts’ and had also given him tickets to use as prizes for charity events.
But The Mail on Sunday has discovered that Mr Higgins has been involved in the selling of tickets for sold-out events for some years.
Staff at top public relations firm Finsbury, which has close relationships with top Labour figures such as Peter Mandelson and Ed Balls, say Mr Higgins regularly supplied the firm and its clients with hard-to-get event tickets.
Mr Higgins’s common law wife Mandy Tupper was Office and Hospitality Manager for the firm until about two years ago. During that time ‘Keith regularly supplied
tickets that you couldn’t get elsewhere’, said a senior figure at the firm.
‘I got the impression that he did it for a living.’
The couple also arranged for Earle to play in a charity five-a-side match at Chelsea Football Club organised by Finsbury in aid of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah’s fundraising activities.
Between 2002 and 2004 Mr Higgins also ran an events firm, Elite Sports and Tours Limited, from an address in Islington, North London.
The firm never filed accounts and was struck off the companies register in 2004. On company documents Mr Higgins and a fellow director, an Islington pub landlord, give their occupations as ‘Tour Rep’.
And last month Mr Higgins listed his personal mobile phone number on the Craigslist website selling tickets for the Capital Radio’s Summertime Ball at Wembley Stadium.
Last night Earle said he had not known that his friend had regularly been involved in selling tickets.
He said: ‘This all looks really bad. People will think that I must have known Keith was involved in selling tickets and that I got these tickets for him at the World Cup so he could sell them on.
‘But that is not the case. I clearly have been naive, but he is my friend. I have known him for years. I trusted him. I have received no money for these tickets and have been promised nothing for them.’
Earle was sent home from the World Cup last week, hours after the South African authorities detained a group of 36 models wearing orange mini-dresses at the Holland-Denmark match who were apparently publicising a Dutch lager company.
A criminal case has now been started against two women alleged to have masterminded the stunt.
Earle had his £150,000 contract with ITV torn up after he confirmed his tickets had been sold on. Eindhoven-based firm StarTripper supplied the seats for the marketing stunt.
The firm, which sells package tours to Dutch fans flying to England to watch Premiership games, sold the tickets for nearly £11,000. The Dutch agency last night confirmed that it had sold a total of 80 tickets for two matches obtained from Earle’s ITV allocation.
The firm says that it paid face value for the tickets and sold them for a £2,000 profit.
Earle says that a phone call from ITV head of sport Niall Sloane last Monday lunchtime was the first he heard that his tickets had been sold on and were at the centre of a major police and FIFA investigation.
He said: ‘I had been due to join the rest of the team covering the Ivory Coast versus Portugal game, but Niall Sloane said I was being taken off air while it was sorted out. Over the next three hours I made a lot of calls. I spoke to Keith Higgins and he confirmed he had sold the Dutch tickets and that quite a number of others were also out there – that he had sold them on.
‘I could not believe what was happening. Then Niall Sloane called again. He said my contract was being terminated. I was booked on the 8.30pm flight that night. I didn’t get to say goodbye to the rest of the team. I was in shock. Now I felt like I was leaving by the back door. After nine years I was out. I had spent years earning my good name in football. I was a well-respected pundit. I am on FA committees. I would never have put that at risk trying to earn a bit of money on the side selling tickets. But I trusted my friend. He let me down.’
A FIFA spokesman said these tickets were available on a ‘proportional basis’ determined by the size of the broadcaster’s operation in South Africa. But he declined to say how many tickets ITV received..
Last night an ITV spokesman said: ‘Robbie Earle signed an official form acknowledging FIFA’s rules and regulations. He assured us that these tickets were for his friends and family. Without the knowledge, or approval of ITV or FIFA, he breached this agreement, and passed a substantial number to a third party, flagrantly disregarding the undertaking he had made.’
Last night Keith Higgins was not available for comment.
He declined to meet The Mail on Sunday and did not return calls left on his mobile phone or with his solicitor, Sean Poulier.
He was also not available at the £600,000 home of his common law wife Mandy Tupper in Whetstone, North London.