A sickener: If you can’t see the World Cup on TV, it can’t create camaraderie

The article below was inspired by a previous blog post on the World Cup, which can be found here. The post was based on a timely and popular topic that was getting a lot of interest in The National newspaper. As you can see from the screenshot of the final page, it was the only comment piece that day to have been written in-house by a staff member.

If you can’t see the game it can’t create camaraderie

by Paul McMillan, The National, Comment section, June 21, 2010

I had been invited by a Dutch friend to watch the Netherlands open their account against Denmark. For that afternoon one corner of Abu Dhabi was a sea of orange and the hotel where I was viewing the match was drowned in the sounds of Dutch folk songs and the now obligatory hum of the vuvuzela.

The match itself became almost a secondary affair as strangers became friends over the course of the 90-minute contest and lost themselves in the carnival atmosphere. That’s the beauty of the World Cup: it is viewed across the globe by those who, while they may not support the same sides, want to take part in a common experience.

But first, the broadcast has to work.

In this region this year’s competition has been marred by transmission problems during key games. Starting with the opening game and continuing at several intervals for the first week of the tournament, the problem is not a minor technical difficulty.

Al Jazeera has blamed the glitch on “sabotage” but has said little else. According to the broadcaster, it has the full backing of football’s governing body, Fifa, to tackle the problem.

Questions over blame or compensation can wait for fans who, while the tournament is still on, just want to watch as much of it as possible. And for many, the only way to make sure they can enjoy a match without interruption is through websites that stream games over the internet.

Hunched over a stuttering computer screen, with the picture shrunk to increase clarity, is far from an ideal way to enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is the World Cup. It does remove the fear, however, of “missing out” on a great match and offers the viewer the choice of which feed to use. If you are not happy with the coverage from one source, says the free-to-air SBS service in Australia, then switch to another site that carries ESPN’s feed from the US.

Al Jazeera bought the rights to the tournament last November as part of a deal worth $1 billion. They have every right to try and make a profit from this investment. But after the frustrations of watching the tournament so far, Fifa ought to look at making the World Cup more accessible to fans in the region.

The MENA region is the only one in the world where the World Cup is only available through pay-per-view. In the UK, where the tournament has been considered one of “the crown jewels” of sport since 2000, along with Wimbledon and Formula One, the World Cup must be free-to-air by law. This year the BBC and ITV have broadcast the tournament on television, radio and, of course, on the internet. Across the globe a total of 18 countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Slovenia are legally streaming their coverage online.

Fifa is known to guard its brand vigorously. For instance, during this tournament the world football governing body has threatened legal action against a Dutch brewery that sent a troupe of models to the Holland-Denmark match as an advertising ploy without having approval. But the growth in unofficial sites streaming games shows the game’s governors are getting left behind.

Faced with the choice between an unreliable connection or an official site showing high-quality games with full analysis at a small fee, many fans around the would take up the offer to watch the games on their laptops or smart phones. The experience would be less thrilling than viewing the games with hundreds of other fans, but it would be better than missing a key game or goal.

If Fifa was feeling particularly sporting, it could even split the proceeds from these internet broadcasts with the official broadcasters in each subscriber’s territory. As a long-suffering football fan, I fear that there is as little chance of this happening at the next World Cup as there is of the English side winning this one.

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