Frustrated Lebanese stream World Cup without a cabinet to approve TV rights

Cafes are quiet, attended only by those who can afford luxuries, while at home fans watch matches on personal devices using VPNs and Lebanon’s notoriously spotty home Wi-Fi connections

A man buys a Brazilian flag four days before the Fifa World Cup 2022 in Beirut, Lebanon.  EPA
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On the third day of the Fifa World Cup, Fadi Alayan stared at a frozen phone screen in his Beirut home. In the next room, his son was experiencing the same disappointment.

This is not an unusual occurrence in the Lebanese capital, but the timing of this Wi-Fi cut — during the second half of the France-Australia group game — was crucial.

“By the time it came back, France was already up 2-1 and I’d missed the goal,” Mr Alayan said.

His options for watching the game with his son elsewhere were as unreliable as the Wi-Fi connection.

Despite Minister of Information Ziad Makari’s efforts, the games are not being broadcast by Lebanon’s public television station, Tele Liban, meaning fans have few options for watching free of charge.

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

For three years, Lebanon’s population has weathered a financial collapse that has led to savings being trapped in banks, their salaries and pensions devalued to a fraction of what they were once worth, their basic needs — electricity, water, bread and medicine — becoming scarce and their future becoming uncertain.

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

Political vacuum hits home

Lebanese men watch a Group B qualifying football match for the 2014 World Cup, between Lebanon and UAE at a cafe in Beirut. This year, public TV stations in the country have failed to obtain TV rights to broadcast the tournament.  AFP

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

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

“But because we have a caretaker government who can't meet, we can’t pay the private broadcaster without approval from the Council of Ministers.”

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

The country is operating without a president and its cabinet is considered resigned, operating only in a caretaker capacity since the May 15 parliamentary elections took place.

Constitutionally, a caretaker government has no prerogative to meet or make major decisions except during extenuating circumstances. And a new government line-up cannot be made without the appointment of a new president — no easy task for a deeply polarised 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 impotence conveyed by the absence of the World Cup on the nation’s TV screens.

“If we had a fully empowered government, this wouldn’t have happened,” he told The National.

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

Pay to watch or don't watch at all

In better days, fans gathered at outdoor viewing parks or cafes to wath the tournament, as in this photo from 2018. AFP

Inside an online gaming cafe, a group of young men, all of whom paid a minimum charge to watch, observed the France-Australia game quietly.

In most Beirut neighbourhoods the vibe is muted — not what would typically be expected of a World Cup evening in an Arab country.

“This is pretty par for the course,” said Tawfic Amayrat, the 25-year-old manager of the cafe. “I’m not surprised.”

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

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

“Football,” Mr Amayrat said gloomily as he stood outside the cafe. “They even want to take that away from us.”

He and his customers are lucky the gaming centre has a yearly subscription to beIN Sports, the Qatari sports channel broadcasting the World Cup.

Whereas in previous years, the football cafes would have a melee of paying and non-paying customers piling over each other in eager anticipation of a goal, this year, establishments throughout the capital are charging entry fees or imposing a minimum charge.

Entry to a cafe can cost anywhere between $3 to $15, depending on the establishment.

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

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

“Even the poorest countries in the world are broadcasting the World Cup. Everyone except Lebanon — we can’t even do that,” he said. “It’s absurd.”

For individuals, the monthly charge for a subscription to beIN Sports is $95 — discounted from $125, but still out of reach for many. By contrast, the salary of the average Lebanese government employee is the equivalent of $50 to $100 a month.

“I don't think anyone could afford this unless they owned a cafe,” Mr Zoghby said. “For normal people like me, it’s impossible to get this subscription. If they did, it would mean no food for the next month.

“Meanwhile our politicians are probably in Qatar, watching the games live.”

Inside the cafes

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

But even some cafes and bars that would normally broadcast the World Cup could not afford to this year due to sliding rates — depending on location and capacity — set by the Qatari sports channel.

A bar owner in the Hamra neighbourhood told The National that the company licensed to distribute beIN Sports was charging his two establishments $7,000 and $4,000 for subscriptions, respectively.

The rate would have been sustainable in previous years, he said, but with fewer customers able to afford a night out, the broadcast 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 establishments rely on in the absence of state electricity.

Outside a large, glitzy cafe in the centre of the capital, a small group of customers watch the match on big-screen TVs — a boon for the handful of valets standing across the street who have a clear line of sight to the game. They watch avidly from the sidelines.

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

Mr Saffeye’s son, meanwhile, does not have the same luck.

“I feel bad. I can’t afford to give him an allowance to watch in a cafe every time there’s a match,” Mr Saffeye said dejectedly.

Despite this, his outlook is more pragmatic compared to that of younger football fans who spoke to The National: “We adapt. There’s no other option.”

But Mr Amayrat, the cafe manager, is angrier.

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

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

“Lebanon took everything from us. We can’t live comfortably. We can’t afford to get married or furnish a house. And now we’re forbidden from the World Cup — the smallest entertainment — unless we can pay.”

Updated: November 24, 2022, 9:36 AM
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