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Frank Torres, his wife Jackie, and their children, left to right, Nigel, Isabelle, Madeline and Erica, are staying with friends in Rio, but may have to splurge on seats for the final. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Frank Torres, his wife Jackie, and their children, left to right, Nigel, Isabelle, Madeline and Erica, are staying with friends in Rio, but may have to splurge on seats for the final. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Soccer-mad Canadians dig deep to see the World Cup Add to ...

Globe and Mail Update Apr. 25 2014, 6:45 PM EDT

Video: How this Winnipeg travel company is making a World Cup play

Sherri Wright-Schwietz isn’t really a soccer fan. But she says her husband Roland Schwietz, a German national who works in the oil business, is an avid one. So avid, in fact, that back in 2006, he left her in Calgary with their two-week-old first-born to head off to that year’s World Cup, held in his homeland. And she was okay with that.

Now, the couple are headed to Brazil, to see three World Cup matches in the country where many believe the “beautiful game” has been perfected. It’s a soccer fan’s dream trip, a trip that a surprisingly large number of Canadians have also decided to make.

But as Ms. Wright-Schwietz and others have discovered: It’s not going to be cheap.

Some Brazilian hotels near World Cup venues are charging five or 10 times their normal rates – rates that were not cheap to begin with. Tickets to the games themselves, which cost hundreds of dollars when bought from organizers, can soar into the thousands of dollars when offered by scalpers.

The spike in prices for Brazilian hotel rooms, glasses of beer and restaurant meals is already being blamed by some analysts for the country’s failure to keep its inflation rate under its targeted 6 per cent.

Call it soccerflation.

The Calgary couple’s 10-day vacation to Brazil’s coastal city of Recife took a year to plan and is costing them at least $15,000. And they say it was only after an exhaustive search, with the help of contacts Mr. Schwietz made working in Brazil 12 years ago, that they could find adequate hotels at reasonable prices.

“The stuff that we were getting off the Internet was ridiculous,” Ms. Wright-Schwietz said, adding that one “beautiful” resort that cost them $250 (U.S.) a night 12 years ago was asking $5,000 a night for accommodations during the World Cup.

“That’s how crazy the prices have inflated.”

But despite concerns about gouging, problems getting visas and other more worrying reports of gang violence, political protests and unfinished stadiums and airports, Canadians are flocking to the world’s premier sporting event in droves. Without a national team in the tournament – Canada’s 110th-ranked squad failed to qualify after an 8-1 loss to Honduras last year – Canadians have bought more than 29,000 tickets to World Cup matches, organizers say.

That ranks Canada 11th in terms of ticket sales, just outside the top 10, which is full of countries with teams on the pitch. Taking population into account, Canadians have bought proportionally more World Cup tickets than Americans, Germans, French or Mexicans.

Even considering the growth of soccer’s popularity in Canada, it’s an astonishing statistic. Part of the reason has to be Canada’s multicultural makeup, with many Canadians cheering for the team from the nation of their birth or of their parents’ birth.

But soccer officials say the love of the game in Canada goes beyond old country loyalties, and that Canada was also the top non-competing nation in attendance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“I think we just love to see great football being played,” said Peter Montopoli, the general secretary of the Canadian Soccer Association who is head organizer of next year’s women’s World Cup and behind efforts to bring the men’s World Cup to Canada in 2026. “And we’ll pay to go see that.”

And paying is what Canadians who are headed to Brazil are prepared to do. Airfare alone can run $2,000 or more. Air Canada says its cheaper seats are selling out fast, even though it has added seven additional daily return flights to Sao Paolo for the duration of the tournament. It normally schedules just one Boeing 767 a day.

According to interviews with travellers and travel agents, overall budgets for World Cup pilgrimages to Brazil range from about $4,000 per person for bare-bones student-style trips, to about $15,000 for longer trips with better hotels and tickets to more desirable games. Beyond that price, specialized luxury travel outfits can offer all sorts of amenities – surfing lessons on a Rio de Janeiro beach, a car and driver, dinner reservations at fine restaurants, a five-star villa, box seats to the final.

Many budget-conscious World Cup travellers braved FIFA’s Web-based lottery system months ago to get hold of tickets that start around $90 (U.S.) but run up to $990 for the final. Most tickets for early games bought by fans who spoke with The Globe are in the $175 range. Many travellers are also using Web-based services such as Airbnb.com to rent private apartments from Brazilians in order to avoid runaway hotel rates.

Those who did not, or could not, buy tickets in advance from FIFA, officially the International Association Football Federation, may end up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the secondary market to get them from ticket agents or websites before they travel, or once they arrive in Brazil. On the U.S.-based ticket reselling website StubHub.com, seats range from about $225 for first-round games featuring unpopular teams to more than $6,000 for the final in Rio.

Mario Livich, chief executive officer of ShowTime Tickets, the largest ticket broker in Canada, predicts some of the wildest ticket prices for games later in the tournament will fall as certain teams are eliminated.

“Market prices are high based on optimism from various teams,” Mr. Livich said. “Once the tournament starts, you’ll see that settle down substantially, where you’ll see some games becoming very very affordable and others being incredibly expensive.”

Tickets to the final are still going to be gold-plated. Right now, Mr. Livich said, top-notch, front-and-centre midfield tickets to the July 13 contest in Rio’s Maracana stadium can be yours for $9,000 a seat.

For some, there is more to worry about than just money. While many headed to Brazil say they are not concerned about their safety, most acknowledge that they plan to be cautious in a country where muggings – and worse, such as shootouts between drug gangs and police in the country’s poor and overcrowded neighbourhoods known as favelas – are notoriously common.

Ms. Wright-Schwietz said she and her soccer-mad husband were originally planning to take their seven-year-old son with them, but their friends in Brazil advised them to leave him behind.

“The gang activity and some of the unrest right now, even in Recife, they wouldn’t feel comfortable with that many people and what’s going on right now,” Ms. Wright-Schwietz said. “These gangs are getting on public buses with other Brazilians and setting people on fire.”

Elie Abitbol of Toronto-area Gateway International, a travel agency that specializes in Latin America and is busy booking “higher-end” World Cup trips, insists security concerns in Brazil, where he travels frequently, are a non-issue.

“Honestly, it’s nonsense,” he said. “It’s like anywhere in the world. You go to downtown Toronto certain hours of the day, I would not take a child.”

Demand from Canadians has a lot to do with the attraction of Brazil itself as a destination, with its love of soccer, but also for its beaches and its reputation as a place to party. And people are paying handsomely for the experience. Checking into Rio’s five-star Caesar Park hotel around the final, he said, is costing clients between $1,500 and $2,000 a night: “You say wow. And I say wow. But people pay it,” he said.

It seems there is a growing group of travellers interested in major sporting events for whom price is no object – and a growing number of niche travel agencies that cater to this demographic. They appear to be doing brisk business before the World Cup.

Among them is Winnipeg-based Roadtrips Inc., which has been booking luxury travel to major sporting events – the Olympics, the Indy 500, Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix, Wimbledon – since 1992. Its website says it still has rooms on hand at Rio’s luxurious Copacabana Hotel.

Duane Penner, the Winnipeg outfit’s vice-president of sales, said his business caters mostly to Americans but is also handling Canadian high-end excursions to Brazil for the World Cup. They procure the game tickets and arrange every detail.

Some travellers are bringing their families and making side trips to the Amazon jungle, he said. Interest is also being driven by the less-attractive nature of the next two World Cup venues, Russia and Qatar, he adds: “This idea of seeing it in Brazil, seeing the final in Rio, Carnivale, the beaches – it’s maybe a bit more compelling than seeing it in Qatar.”

There appears to be no price limit. One Indian businessman is bringing his wife and two boys and spending $250,000 on the trip, Mr. Penner said, not counting airfare: “They are obviously not flying coach.”

Money can also buy you time with star athletes on the sidelines. A new U.S. company called Beck & Score, in which Steve Nash, the Canadian basketball star and co-owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps, is a partner, offers customers the chance to hang out with him at the World Cup.

An authorized reseller of $2.5-million worth of VIP “hospitality” tickets, Beck & Score arranges access to four- and five-star accommodations, books dinner reservations at the finest restaurants, and has the best seats on hand for the quarter-finals and the final, along with invitations to private receptions.

Security and transportation are taken care of. A custom smartphone acts as a digital concierge. During your down time, you can play five-on-five with Mr. Nash, or seek out American surfer Garrett McNamara, a world record holder for riding a 30-metre wave last year, who will be stationed on a Rio beach to provide surfing lessons.

Packages start at about $15,000 (U.S.) per person, not including airfare, spokesman Brian Cooley said.

Despite the buzz about Brazil, there is one group of Canadians that does not appear to be joining this summer’s stampede to the World Cup: Brazilian-Canadians.

“I can tell you, 99 per cent of the bookings for the World Cup is not for Brazilians,” said Bruna Silva of Brasil Travel, a small travel agency nestled in Toronto’s west-end Brazilian and Portuguese neighbourhood, an area that turns into a frenzied block party at World Cup time. “Our average clientele, Brazilians looking to spend their vacation [in Brazil], they are not going this year,” she explained. “They say it is going to be too crazy, it is going to be too expensive.”

Italian-Canadians and Croatian-Canadians are among her customers heading to Brazil, said Ms. Silva, who moved to Canada 11 years ago. But even she has no desire to head home for the big event, no matter what the cost: “Every if you give me free tickets, I don’t think that I want to be there for the World Cup.”

During the last World Cup, soccer provided a way for Frank Torres, a first-generation Canadian whose parents came from Spain, to connect his football-crazed 11-year-old son, Nigel, to his heritage.

While celebrating Spain’s win in South Africa with thousands of others on Toronto’s College Street, Mr. Torres started thinking that a soccer pilgrimage would be a good excuse to return to Brazil, where he and his wife Jackie travelled years ago.

“It was a tremendous experience, the way that the kids get in touch with their heritage through sport,” Mr. Torres said.

Recently, a friend moved to Rio de Janeiro, offering the family a place to stay. Now, Mr. Torres, who does traffic reports on local station AM 740 and owns a business that creates content for other radio stations, is taking his son, plus his nine-year-old daughter Isabel, seven-year-old twins Madeline and Erica, and wife Jackie, to Brazil for the World Cup.

Despite staying with friends, the family hasn’t been immune to the gouging. They saw the price of a beach house they booked north of Rio shoot up to $5,000 a week from $1,900 after the owner realized they wanted it during the World Cup.

They will be in Rio the day of the final, but they haven’t bought tickets. Particularly if Spain is on the pitch, Mr. Torres said, they may have to splurge on seats: “Even just being in Rio when the soccer’s on, is just going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’ll go down there open-minded and we may end up being open-walleted as well.”

Marc MacKinnon, a long-time soccer fan who works in communications for the federal government in Ottawa, has been looking forward to the World Cup in Brazil for years.

“It’s Brazil,” he explained. “They’re soccer crazy. We figured if there was one to go to, this was it. I don’t anticipate getting to another one in my lifetime. This is it.”

Mr. MacKinnon, 36, and his friend Vince Hardy are travelling to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and taking in two games over 10 days: England against Uruguay and Russia against Belgium, seats they bought for close to $200 a pop in FIFA’s official lottery without knowing what teams they would see.

For the privilege, they are sharing a $385-a-night hotel room that Mr. MacKinnon said normally costs $90: “It’s a roof. That’s pretty much all we need, a place to dump our stuff.”

Still mired in the arduous process of getting a visa and rebooking a cancelled flight from Rio to Sao Paulo, he said he isn’t overly worried about whether Brazil’s stadiums or airports will be ready, or about his safety.

“We’re not going to be going on any adventures,” he said. “We’re going to stick to the places we know. You hear all this stuff about all the violence in the favelas and stuff like that … I think our exuberance outweighs the little bit of worry.”

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WHO'S MAKING THE TRIP?

During the last World Cup, soccer provided a way for Frank Torres, a first-generation Canadian whose parents came from Spain, to connect his football-crazed 11-year-old son, Nigel, to his heritage.

While celebrating Spain’s win in South Africa with thousands of others on Toronto’s College Street, Mr. Torres started thinking that a soccer pilgrimage would be a good excuse to return to Brazil, where he and his wife Jackie travelled years ago.

“It was a tremendous experience, the way that the kids get in touch with their heritage through sport,” Mr. Torres said.

Recently, a friend moved to Rio de Janeiro, offering the family a place to stay. Now, Mr. Torres, who does traffic reports on local station AM 740 and owns a business that creates content for other radio stations, is taking his son, plus his nine-year-old daughter Isabel, seven-year-old twins Madeline and Erica, and wife Jackie, to Brazil for the World Cup.

Despite staying with friends, the family hasn’t been immune to the gouging. They saw the price of a beach house they booked north of Rio shoot up to $5,000 a week from $1,900 after the owner realized they wanted it during the World Cup.

They will be in Rio the day of the final, but they haven’t bought tickets. Particularly if Spain is on the pitch, Mr. Torres said, they may have to splurge on seats: “Even just being in Rio when the soccer’s on, is just going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’ll go down there open-minded and we may end up being open-walleted as well.”

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Marc MacKinnon, a long-time soccer fan who works in communications for the federal government in Ottawa, has been looking forward to the World Cup in Brazil for years.

“It’s Brazil,” he explained. “They’re soccer crazy. We figured if there was one to go to, this was it. I don’t anticipate getting to another one in my lifetime. This is it.”

Mr. MacKinnon, 36, and his friend Vince Hardy are travelling to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and taking in two games over 10 days: England against Uruguay and Russia against Belgium, seats they bought for close to $200 a pop in FIFA’s official lottery without knowing what teams they would see.

For the privilege, they are sharing a $385-a-night hotel room that normally costs $90: “It’s a roof. That’s pretty much all we need, a place to dump our stuff.”

Still mired in the arduous process of getting a visa and rebooking a cancelled flight from Rio to Sao Paulo, he said he isn’t worried about whether Brazil’s stadiums or airports will be ready, or about his safety.

“We’re not going to be going on any adventures,” he said. “We’re going to stick to the places we know. You hear all this stuff about all the violence in the favelas and stuff like that … I think our exuberance outweighs the little bit of worry.”

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