x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

World Cup mania grips a land that is merely watching

Michael Karam: I never realised quite how much money FIFA had until I read that football's governing body had raised more than US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) in World Cup sponsorship deals.

I never realised quite how much money FIFA had until I read that football's governing body had raised more than US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) in World Cup sponsorship deals. The tournament's official "partners", include Sony, Adidas (which makes the match ball), Hyundai, Visa, Coca-Cola and Emirates. It is big-stakes endorsement - in 2006, Adidas forked out a reported $200 million to have its name on the ball - with the likes of McDonald's, Budweiser and Castrol clearly happy to sign up for second-tier "sponsor" status.

TV rights are, naturally, at a premium. In the US, where the vast majority of the population is cheerfully unaware of the biggest sporting show on Earth, Univision, a Spanish-language media company that serves the US market, is shelling out $150m for the television rights to broadcast the tournament to the nation's soccer-mad Hispanic community. In the Middle East, the Qatar Tribune reported last month that Al Jazeera Sport subscribers would have to buy a $100 card to watch the games. This is probably to help pay the 350 extra staff the network has hired for the duration of the tournament.

In Beirut, where we have power cuts for at least three hours a day, where the traffic is gridlocked, where soon we will be blocked off from the cooling Mediterranean sea breeze by multimillion-dollar seafront apartments, and where we constantly live, albeit with some style, on the edge of the apocalypse, we get to watch the games free. My satellite provider isn't Orbit Showtime Network or any of the other big regional companies. I get my home entertainment from Tony who lives around the corner.

Tony, who is often helped by his younger brother Elie, gives me more than 200 semi-legal (his words) channels, of which my family and I watch about 30. Tony must be a sports fan because every conceivable event, from soccer to drag racing to darts to ice hockey to men pulling trucks with their teeth, is bundled into my entertainment package. He is also a man of impeccable morals, having assured me that I would get no funny stuff after midnight.

My son Sam and I like our football and, as such, are forced to play a skilful game of diplomacy with Mrs Karam and my daughter Zein, both of whom do not. There is, after all, only so much "bonding" a father and son can get away with. Still, we gave fair notice of our intent to monopolise our new home theatre ("Special World Cup offer" at BHV) during June. Tony says there will be no surprises and that we will be able to receive all the sports channels, even the ones that have implemented a pay-per-view policy for the tournament. Sam assures me that even if Tony's optimism is trumped and that somehow we are the victim of sneaky signal block from Qatar, we can watch the incomprehensible but utterly reliable Albanian channel.

My son and I are not alone in our breathless anticipation. The World Cup is the signal for at least half the Lebanese population to go completely bonkers. I am normally a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to nationwide outbursts of fun, but there is something endearing about the way we go potty over a tournament in which we have no hope of taking part. We had a decent stab at it. Back in the 1990s, the Lebanese Football Federation embarked on a policy of recruiting foreign coaches. We hired Terry Yorath, the former Leeds United star, to take Lebanon to the finals. The dour Welshman did not last long, nor did the others, including the hugely respected Croatian Josip Skoblar, who was sacked in October 2000 after a mere seven months in the job.

So, the burden of expectation removed, Lebanese support for other soccer nations is based on dual nationality (Australia, France, England the US, etc.), the safe bets (Brazil and Argentina), admiration for car-manufacturing prowess (Germany, but not Japan) or the physical attributes of its players (Italy, obviously). Amid this frenzy, the local hospitality sector expects business to increase by 50 per cent during World Cup month. Businesses see it as a useful warm-up for the tourist season, which begins in earnest in July.

The last World Cup year, 2006, did not hold happy memories for the Lebanese. One week after a victorious Italy landed in Rome with the cup, Hassan Nasrallah's Hezbollah and Israel subjected us to a month-long war, just as the tourist season was kicking in. The industry lost more than $1bn in direct revenue and many businesses went under. Oh yes, and many innocent people died. After the ceasefire, I found myself sitting with a restaurant owner in one of Beirut's biggest malls. The Israeli blockade had been lifted and life was slowly returning to normal. Nonetheless, his restaurant was empty and the huge flat-screen TV that dominated the bar area was turned off.

"It was packed every night, especially for the football," the owner sighed. "But that was BN." "BN?" I asked. "Before Nasrallah!" He burst out laughing and high-fived me, before quickly lighting up yet another cigarette and surveying his shattered dream. His plot at the mall has since been taken by another eatery. I have no clue where he is or what he is doing. He was just another Lebanese businessman trying to make a living. No doubt there will be more like him this summer, entrepreneurs who have risked all to cash in on the tourist dollar, buoyed by central bank predictions of a bumper tourist season.

So let us hope that this year everyone makes a bucketload of money and that we do not get any surprises ? unless of course it is an England win. Michael Karam is a Beirut-based journalist and business consultant business@thenational.ae