HONG KONG — Xue Qiulian has been a die-hard fan of Argentina’s national soccer team since his junior high school days in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese megacity. But his dream of seeing the team play live was always out of reach — until this year, when he could finally afford to attend the World Cup, in Russia.
In March, when Xue, 30, tried to purchase a ticket to Argentina’s World Cup match last week against Iceland, he found that official ticket agents were all sold out. Desperate to see the match, he bought a ticket through a Beijing agency, which he had found by way of an Argentina fans’ group on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform.
The catch? He paid $620, roughly four times the face value. “Just let me get to Russia to see Messi,” he recalled thinking when he made the purchase, referring to Argentina’s star striker, Lionel Messi.
But Xue turned out to be one of possibly thousands of Chinese fans whose World Cup tickets never materialized. The Chinese government now says they were victims of a ticketing swindle orchestrated by a Moscow company called Anzhi, which shares a name with a Russian Premier League football club in the southern region of Dagestan.
The Chinese Embassy in Moscow said in a notice last week that it had confirmed the fraud with Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the local organizing committee for the World Cup. This week, one person was arrested in connection with the case.
The embassy did not say how many fans had been swindled. But according to a report Friday by The Cover, a Chinese news site, three travel agencies in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing wrote to their local tourism office saying that Anzhi, the Moscow company, also known as Anzhi Msk, told them it had sold about 10,000 tickets, 3,500 of them to Chinese fans.
Anzhi Msk told the Chongqing agencies, which had collectively purchased nearly half a million dollars’ worth of tickets from it, that it had intended to distribute the tickets, but that the Russian officials who had promised to provide them absconded with the ticket money, The Cover reported.
Xue, the Argentina fan, said he bought his $620 ticket from an agency in Beijing called the Russian Chinese Culture Education Development Center. He gave The New York Times a copy of a power-of-attorney agreement he said the agency had sent him, concerning Anzhi Msk’s relations with World Cup ticket buyers in China. The agreement lists Anzhi Msk’s chairwoman as Zhanna E. Bryutova.
Bryutova is also a co-founder of another Russian company, Obltransstroyresurs. Its other co-founder is Eldar A. Isaev, a former executive director of the Anzhi Football Club.
Last July, Isaev told Sport Connect, a Russian sports news outlet, that the club planned to engage in a joint venture with Chinese partners, and that it already had someone “mingling in local soccer circles” in China.
In The Cover’s story last week, a travel agent in the western Chinese province of Sichuan named Yang Jun was quoted as saying that someone claiming to be a former member of the Anzhi Football Club had once reached out to him, hinting at a possible collaboration and saying that he had extensive contacts within FIFA, soccer’s governing body.
On Wednesday, the Interfax news agency reported that Isaev had been arrested on suspicion of large-scale fraud. The Kommersant newspaper reported Thursday that the arrest was linked to World Cup ticketing fraud.
Kommersant said that Isaev, who it said became a top manager at Anzhi Msk in October after quitting the Anzhi Football Club, was suspected of causing an estimated $1.1 million in losses for Chinese fans. It said Isaev had pleaded not guilty to the charges, saying he had been set up by his business partners.
Bryutova, Isaev’s business partner, was also detained, Kommersant said.
In a statement Thursday, Anzhi Football Club said that while Isaev was its executive director from January to October 2017, his activity since then has had “no connection” to the club.
Until 2016, the owner of the Anzhi Football Club was Suleyman Kerimov, a Russian oligarch and lawmaker who made billions in oil, mining and finance. He was arrested last year in the French Riviera, over the Kremlin’s objections, in connection with a tax fraud and money laundering investigation.
Multiple attempts to reach Anzhi Msk and the Russian Embassy in Beijing were unsuccessful. The Chongqing Morning Post reported Sunday that its reporters had visited Anzhi Msk’s office in Moscow and found it empty.
The Russian Chinese Culture Education Development Center, the Beijing ticketing agency, declined to comment, and several travel agents in Chongqing referred questions to their local tourism office.
An officer there said that five travel agencies and about 100 fans in Chongqing had been cheated out of tickets by Anzhi Msk. The officer, who only gave his surname, Guo, said Wednesday that some of the agencies had purchased new tickets for their clients.
FIFA said in early June that more than 2.4 million World Cup tickets had been allocated to fans around the world, and that fans in China had bought 40,251 of them, making their country ninth in ticket sales.
People’s Daily, a Chinese newspaper, warned in January that it was “highly possible” that anyone buying World Cup tickets from Chinese travel agencies would end up either with counterfeits or with no tickets at all.
But Xue, the Argentina fan from Guangzhou, said he dealt with an agency because he was desperate to see his favorite team in a tournament that he describes as “sacred.”
In April, Xue said, he was relieved to receive a message from the Beijing ticketing agency with details of his purchase. But May came and went without any sign of the ticket itself.
Days before the Argentina-Iceland match in Moscow, he received a letter in which the Beijing ticketing agency said it had “lost contact with the ticket holder” and would be unable to “deliver the physical ticket to the customer as originally planned,” according to a copy of the letter.
“I realized I had been cheated,” Xue said.
One of his friends later bought him a ticket, paying more than $1,500. Xue said he boarded a flight to Moscow last week wondering if that ticket, whose face value was $165, would prove to be fake.
Fortunately, it wasn’t, and on Saturday Xue was able to watch Argentina play Iceland to a draw. He said the experience was satisfying, even if he was disappointed with Messi’s performance.
In an interview Wednesday, hours before he flew back to Guangzhou, Xue said that his Beijing ticketing agency had offered to repay the cost of his $620 ticket, plus an additional 15 percent for his troubles. But he said he had demanded $3,100 — a sum that included the cost of both his tickets, plus what he called emotional damages.
“I’ve been so nervous,” he said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.