Frustrated Lebanese stream World Cup as TV channels battle for rights

On day three of the Fifa World Cup, Fadi Alayan stared at a frozen phone screen at his home in Beirut. In the next room, his son experienced the same disappointment.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence in the Lebanese capital, but the timing of that wifi disruption – during the second half of the group stage game between France and Australia – was crucial.

“When they came back France were already 2-1 up and I missed the goal,” said Mr Alayan.

His ability to watch the game elsewhere with his son was unreliable, as was the WiFi connection.

Despite the efforts of Information Minister Ziad Makari, the matches will not be broadcast on Lebanese public TV station Tele Liban, meaning fans have few opportunities to watch for free.

“This year it’s like the government is telling us, ‘each for himself,'” Mr Alayan said.

For three years, the Lebanese people have endured a financial collapse that has left savings trapped in banks, their salaries and pensions devalued to a fraction of their original value, and their basic needs – electricity, water, bread and medicines – in short supply are and their future is uncertain.

Now even the world’s biggest football tournament is out of reach.

Political vacuum meets home

Lebanese men watch the Group B Asian Zone qualifier soccer match for the 2014 World Cup between Lebanon and United Arab Emirates February 29, 2012 at a cafe in Beirut February 29, 2012.  Lebanon advanced to the next round despite losing 4-2.  AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

For once, it is not a question of finances for the bankrupt nation: the money is there to pay for the Qatari broadcaster, Makari said.

“We had a very good deal,” he said. “That’s half of what we paid to broadcast the World Cup in 2018.

“But because we have an interim government that cannot meet, we cannot pay for the private broadcaster without the approval of the Council of Ministers.”

For many, the failure to secure the rights to broadcast the World Cup to fans in Lebanon – which would normally be a routine undertaking – is a worrying symptom of Lebanon’s political dysfunction.

The country is operating without a president and his cabinet is said to have resigned, having only served in an executive capacity since the May 15 general election.

Constitutionally, an interim government has no prerogative to make or make important decisions except in extenuating circumstances. And a new government cannot be formed without the appointment of a new president – no easy task for a deeply polarized parliament that has so far been unable to agree on a candidate.

The resulting government vacuum has left the country in a state of paralysis.

Mr Makari acknowledged the message of powerlessness conveyed by the absence of the World Cup from the nation’s television screens.

“If we had had a government with full powers, this would not have happened,” he said The National.

“I’m sorry. I wish everyone could watch it for free.”

Pay to watch or don’t watch at all

In better days, fans would gather in parks or cafes to watch the tournament outdoors, as in this 2018 photo. AFP

At an online gaming cafe, a group of young men, all paying a minimum fee to watch, quietly watched the France-Australia game.

In most parts of Beirut, the mood is subdued – not what you would normally expect from a World Cup night in an Arab country.

“It’s pretty normal,” said Tawfic Amayrat, the 25-year-old manager of the cafe. “I am not suprised.”

If previous World Cups are any indication, under normal circumstances the cafes would be teeming with rowdy customers and fans, with cheers and cheers heard across the capital.

But on the third day of the World Cup, the streets are eerily quiet.

‘Football,’ Mr Amayrat said somberly as he stood in front of the cafe. “They even want to take that away from us.”

He and his customers are lucky that the gaming center has an annual subscription to beIN Sports, the Qatari sports channel that broadcasts the World Cup.

While in previous years paying and non-paying customers crowded into the football cafés, eagerly awaiting a goal, this year businesses throughout the capital are charging entrance fees or charging a minimum fee.

Admission to a cafe can cost anywhere from $3 to $15, depending on the establishment.

Hashem Zoghby, a 21-year-old motorcycle mechanic from Choueifat, a suburb of Beirut, said he used to watch World Cup games at home with his family and only went to a café with friends for the bigger games.

On the first day, Mr. Zoghby and his parents watched coverage of the World Cup opening ceremony. But without a monthly subscription to beIN Sports, that was as close as it gets.

“Even the poorest countries in the world broadcast the World Cup. All but Lebanon – we can’t even do that,” he said. “It’s absurd.”

For individuals, the monthly fee for a beIN Sports subscription is $95 – down from $125, but still unaffordable for many. The average Lebanese government employee earns the equivalent of $50 to $100 a month.

“I don’t think anyone can afford that if they don’t own a cafe,” said Mr Zoghby. “It’s impossible for normal people like me to get this subscription. If they did, it would mean no food for the next month.

“By now our politicians are probably in Qatar watching the games live.”

In the cafes

Lebanese soccer fans watch the opening match between Brazil and Croatia of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on a giant screen at a cafe in Beirut, 2014. EPA

But even some cafes and bars that would normally broadcast the World Cup could not afford this year due to the sliding tariffs – based on location and capacity – set by the Qatar Sports Channel.

This was told by a bar owner in the district of Hamra The National that the company licensed to distribute beIN Sports billed its two facilities $7,000 and $4,000 respectively for subscriptions.

The rate would have been sustainable in previous years, he said, but with fewer customers able to afford an evening out, the show is no longer profitable.

“The generator bill alone is enough to worry about,” he said, referring to the costly generator subscriptions that the vast majority of people and facilities depend on in the absence of government electricity.

Outside a large, glitzy cafe in the center of the capital, a handful of customers watch the game on big-screen TVs – a boon for the handful of valets standing across the street with a clear view of the game. They watch eagerly from the sidelines.

“It’s good, at least we have these TVs to watch it on,” said valet Hassan Saffeye.

Mr. Saffeye’s son, however, is not as fortunate.

“I feel bad. I can’t afford to give him pocket money every time there’s a game to watch in a coffee shop,” said Mr. Saffeye dejectedly.

Despite this, his attitude is more pragmatic compared to younger football fans who have spoken to him The National: “We adapt. There’s no other possibility.”

But Mr. Amayrat, the cafe manager, is angrier.

“This failed country is our problem. Football was our only outlet for forgetting and even watching has become our problem. Soon they will make something as simple as breathing our problem too.”

Mr Zoghby goes further, linking the state’s failure to broadcast matches on public television to the future prospects of Lebanese youth.

“Lebanon took everything from us. We cannot live comfortably. We cannot afford to get married or set up a house. And now we’re locked out of the World Cup – the smallest entertainment – unless we can pay.”

Updated November 24, 2022 at 8:20 am


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