It is a World Cup of firsts.
The first African hosts, the first to feature the collective buzz of the “vuvuzelas
” (still destined to be one of the defining words of 2010) and the first time the tournament has been broadcast in High Definition.
But for every spectacular goal scored, or dive unpunished, audiences in the Middle East are on the edge of their seats for reasons that have nothing to do with the action in Johannesburg, Rustenburg, Cape Town or any of South Africa’s proud sporting stadia.
On Friday afternoon, viewers of the Al Jazeera Sports
network were treated to a spectacular opening ceremony
in which South Africa showed it was a nation that had overcame its turbulent past to become a worthy host of the world’s biggest sporting tournament.
Following the dancers, shots of Archbishop Desmond Tutu
decked out in the yellow and green of the South African side and a poignant tribute to Nelson Mandela (unable to attend because of a death in the family), Al Jazeera cut to an interview with its chairman, Nasser Al Khalifi, proud to be bringing the World Cup to his viewers.
But shortly after kick-off in Johannesburg’s Soccer City, it all went disastrously wrong.
About a minute into the opening tie between South Africa and Mexico, the Al Jazeera feed cut out. And remained out for most of the first half.
The second half also showed signs of interruption. By the 60th minute, viewers were only able to watch pictures from the opening game with French commentary. Not a great solution for a part of the world where English is effectively the second language after Arabic.
Initially the company remained silent on the problems but, when they persisted on the second day, Al Jazeera issued a statement that said its feed had been targeted by “saboteurs”
and it would be taking legal action against those responsible.
The blackout has been a PR disaster for Al Jazeera, which was charging its own subscribers an extra Dh300 ($88/£60) for a card to watch the tournament.
Millions of viewers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Oman were left in the dark during the disruption. Four days into the tournament and the network has yet to announce the results of any preliminary investigation or details of any refund for those left disappointed.
Hacking is not unknown for broadcasters in the region, but it is usually confined to cloning viewing cards rather than knocking out transmission.
Predictably, it has led to an outcry from subscribers in a part of the world where football is second only to religion in its following. Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, has even launched an audacious bid
to host an indoor air-conditioned World Cup in 2022.
Al Jazeera has tried to make amends by airing some fixtures on its free-to-air channel and advising viewers to switch from the Egyptian satellite Nilesat to the alternative Arabsat, but even this has led to negative publicity
The advice to shift from the Egyptian satellite Nilesat to Arabsat, which in turn has led to allegations from Egyptian media officials that Al Jazeera could itself be behind the problems to “punish” Egypt for the first blackout.
Of course, it is not just the Middle East that has had broadcast problems as ITV executives will admit after issuing a grovelling apology following a blackout on its HD channel
just as Steven Gerrard scored for England. But, in this instance, viewers of ITV’s normal digital service were unaffected.
In the UK, the World Cup has been designated as one of the “crown jewels of sport”
since 2000 and must be freely available to viewers by law. Games are shared between the BBC and ITV networks.
The world’s most popular sports tournament is also free-to-air in France, in Australia it is on the public broadcasting channel SBS, England vs USA was on the ABC network in America and the matches are also freely available in Sri Lanka.
Al Jazeera Sports is one of the most prominent broadcasters in the Middle East and already enjoys exclusive rights in the region to other major events such as the Olympics and tournaments such as the UEFA Champions League.
However, it is not the only sports broadcaster in the MENA region.
Abu Dhabi TV has the rights to the English Premier League, Dubai also has its own sports channel and Saudi has the MBC network.
Whether you believe the claims of sabotage or not, the bigger blunder appears to lie with FIFA for putting the rights to its flagship tournament in the hands of one broadcaster for such a large area.
No one can legislate for technical difficulties during live broadcasts or attacks by determined hackers. But, by sharing the wealth, the damage could have been minimised.
It’s not the action on the pitch that’s keeping Middle East viewers on the edge of their seats, rather the fear they won’t see any of it.