The Arab region and the football World Cup

The current world cup viewership in MENA has been at the mercy of haphazard unilateral initiatives of regional governments.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Supporters of the Egyptian national football team cheer during a gathering in central Moscow, on June 15. (Reuters)
Supporters of the Egyptian national football team cheer during a gathering in central Moscow, on June 15. (Reuters)

For a whole month from June 14, the FIFA World Cup will consume worldwide audiences, not least in the Middle East and North Africa.

Across the region — not just in big cities and crowded coffee shops but also in bleak refugee camps, conflict-scarred communities and remote desert outposts — the greatest show on Earth will be watched with rapt attention. It will bring joy in many places where joy is scarce.

There’s good reason the 2018 FIFA World Cup — eight years and $13 billion in the making — is a particular draw for Arab audiences. For the first time, it brings four Arab teams to the World Cup arena. Saudi Arabia returns to the tournament after a 12-year absence. Morocco made the tournament for the first time in 20 years. Egypt had not qualified for a World Cup since 1990. As for Tunisia, the “Eagles of Carthage” have qualified five times since 1978.

The tournament — 64 games, 32 teams — will be a welcome distraction from the region’s woes.

This, despite that sport and politics are entwined in this World Cup, too. Host Russia’s actions on the world stage — and especially with respect to Syria — have been controversial. The Argentine national football team arrived in Russia on the back of a row over its cancellation of a warm-up match with Israel after protests against the game.

Despite all that, for this month, politics will not take a front seat in the World Cup. The tournament brings Arabs together, over and above political, social or sectarian divides. Even warring militias will probably take time off to watch the games. For Tunisia and Morocco, the two Maghreb countries in the tournament, the presence of many Europe-born players on their national teams helps to bridge a gap between the home countries and their diasporas.

The World Cup will be the ultimate unifier and equaliser. Football fans are not the only ones caught up in the excitement. Everyone is tuning in to the tournament, cheering on their home teams and those of fellow Arab countries.

Despite the strong draw of the event, watching World Cup games on television is not an easy task in the MENA region. It may be legitimate for FIFA, the world football body, to generate revenue from the sale of broadcast rights but creating regional broadcast monopolies for the highest bidders was bound to leave large segments of the region’s audiences frustrated.

Because pay-TV sport subscription rates are well above the means of most Arab viewers, all but a tiny minority in the MENA region is generally able to watch the football extravaganza with other people in coffee shops and nargile cafes where pay-TV subscriptions are available. The rest often rely on piracy-assisted satellite receivers. The current World Cup viewership in MENA has been at the mercy of haphazard unilateral initiatives of regional governments and calculated concessions by the MENA broadcast rights owner once put under pressure.

This is a matter of concern and FIFA must take at least some of the blame for opting for a deal that essentially disenfranchises much of the Arab world from participating in a world event. FIFA’s broadcast rights arrangement ironically encourages piracy and copyrights infringement. This has even prompted lawsuits in MENA countries, such as Egypt.

There is a point in making the tournament available to the widest possible audience in the Arab world. The games offer a narrative of national unified endeavour, regional pride and a healthy respect for athleticism. Russia 2018 offers Arab nations the chance to shine on the world stage.

However, beyond the quest for immediate wins, which are difficult to guarantee, Arab participation in world sport must reach for higher levels of sustainable success. A country’s sporting character goes a long way towards branding whole nations. Athletic performance is the result of long-term planning and a reflection of each country’s willingness to implement policies that promote health, education and wellbeing for all.

Finally, of course, the World Cup gives Arabs the chance to be ambassadors for the region and to learn more about the Russian Federation than the scant news of Moscow’s military and political role in the Middle East.

Among the nearly 1 million visitors discovering Russia and its 11 FIFA Cup host cities in 2018, there will be many from the Arab world. How they conduct themselves and interact with people from other parts of the world is important for the image of Arabs.

But above all, it is about enjoying the moment.