“The poor man’s game is for the rich only.” Such is the cry of sports writers across the Arab world these days. From my position monitoring Arab media for a U.S.-based non-profit, I’ve watched the fallout from the decision by soccer’s governing body to grant exclusive World Cup broadcast rights in the Middle East to a Saudi-financed television network. The result of the deal: Middle Easterners must pay upwards of $500 to view the competition.
Though only two Arab teams, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, are playing in the World Cup, soccer-mania has spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, as it does every four years. But diehard fans from Morocco to Yemen are furious at FIFA’s (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) deal with the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART).
In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave instructions to the ministry of information to pursue all possible means to convince FIFA to grant Algeria TV the broadcast rights for the games. All efforts failed. Last week an Algeria TV news anchor apologized profusely to the country’s soccer fans and consoled viewers that they could at least watch the highlights of 64 games.
Even the European channels, which are popular in Algeria, will be encrypting live match broadcasts according to their own agreements with FIFA. An Algerian fan complained in French, “Shame on French television ... how they could do this to us? We gave the French National Team Zenedine Zeidan (known as “Zizou” to the French). Without him, France would not have won the World Cup in 1998.”
In the war-torn country of Iraq, residents of Baghdad have been pooling their money to watch the games at designated family members’ homes. According to a report on Al-Arabiya TV, coffee shops have been opening late to accommodate the fans, but many chose to stay at home, fearing suicide attacks by insurgents. The Iraqi national team, once one of the best teams in the Asia Division, did not qualify this year for lack of practice and long layovers due to the turmoil in the country.
“I don’t care who wins the championship, I just want a few minutes of escape,” one Iraqi fan told an Al Arabiya reporter. “The fact that ART is charging us a fee to watch the World Cup is despicable,” he said, but was not his main concern. “I hope that we’ll have electricity during the games,” he sighed.
In the Middle East, I’ve seen this love of soccer temporarily quell conflict between the bitterest of foes. In December 1998, I watched the final World Cup match, between France and Brazil, at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel set up a wide-screen television in its open-air garden, where crowds of Palestinians, Israelis, foreign tourists and reporters munched on Arabic mezza and nervously sucked on their argilehs (water-pipes) while watching the action. Within five minutes of the start of the match, soccer fans separated according to their favorite teams. The majority of Palestinians and Israelis rowdily cheered Brazil, while foreigners more politely supported “le bleu, blanc, rouge.”
Today, inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, a small coffee house that will remain nameless is serving its mixed patrons Arabic coffee and argileh along with World Cup matches via a pirated receiver. “During the match, there is no war,” the owner tells me with pride on the telephone. “If you discuss politics here, I’ll kick you out—end of story.” This year, he says, Palestinian and Israeli fans are united against one common enemy: satellite and cable carriers charging hefty fees for the privilege of watching this global game.
Here in the United States, Arabs who choose to pay to watch the games in Arabic on ART won’t get a respite from reminders of the war and conflict savaging the Middle East. I’ve been watching these ART broadcasts in San Francisco because the ESPN announcer bores me and my third-grade Spanish is no match for the lively Univision sportscaster. At the end of each game, and after the long-distance phone company and travel agency ads, there is a peculiar pitch: Special Agent Hassan, a confident and beautiful Arab-American woman, appears.
“I have a masters in chemistry,” she says in English, “I am a weekend soccer goalie, I stop the plans of terrorists ... I am a special agent with today’s FBI.” The next advertisement typically features a U.S. Army soldier, who says, “I am a bridge between two civilizations. I am an American soldier and an Arabic translator ... Join the Army and get a reward of up to $10,000, and speed up the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship.”
I miss the days when a game could make fans in a garden courtyard in Jerusalem forget, for a moment, the troubles of their conflicted land. Soccer’s popularity is gaining in America, but it’s got a long way to go. When the U.S. team was annihilated by the Czech Republic, 3-0, few seemed to notice here. I mentioned “the game” to a colleague. “It was a one-sided match,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied, thinking I meant the previous evening’s basketball face-off. “Shaq had an off-day.”
Jamal Dajani is director of Middle East programming at Link TV.