Egyptians struggle to enjoy World Cup fever

It was a grim scene Monday afternoon at the San Sousi coffee shop, tucked away on a Giza side-street.
The Holland-Denmark World Cup match had just wrapped up with a 2-0 victory for the Dutch team, but the screen of the television mounted on the wall was blank and one of the customers eagerly asked a visitor if he knew the final score.

Two hours earlier, about 15 football fans had gathered at the San Sousi in anticipation of the match between two of the better European teams. But minutes before the match was supposed to air on the free Nile Sport channel, a broadcaster apologized, citing vague technical issues.

“Everybody left of course,” said Ayman, a coffeeshop employee. “There was nothing we could do.”

Monday’s disappointed football fans were likely victims of the latest dispute between the Jazeera Sports channels, which hold exclusive World Cup broadcast rights, and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU)—which has an agreement to broadcast selected games on its Nile Sport channel.

The partnership between the two broadcasting companies seemed to sour almost as soon as the tournament began. ERTU chief Osama el-Sheikh publicly accused Jazeera executives of cutting into the broadcast time of Saturday’s US-England match, and of transmitting other matches with a deliberately weak and shaky signal.

Jazeera officials responded with accusations that technical difficulties during the opening South Africa-Mexico match were due to deliberate jamming—a statement that had el-Sheikh threatening a lawsuit for slander and breach of contract.

The two broadcast companies proved unable to work together in the past as well. Another public dispute erupted last January over broadcast rights for the African Cup of Nations tournament.

On a street level, the whole dispute means that Egyptian football fans are living in daily uncertainty as to whether the matches advertised on Nile Sport will actually air. It’s a major issue, especially for those who don’t have a pricey Jazeera Sport subscription, or access to a coffee shop with a subscription.

Even though Egypt failed to qualify for the tournament, Egyptians love a good football match. The quadrennial World Cup tournament impacts the economics of other local entertainment industries.

“It really does affect things—especially for the big matches,” said Abdel Galil Hassan, a spokesman for downtown’s Cinema Metro. “But a good film distinguishes itself, regardless of the timing.”

Hassan said he has high hopes for a film debuting this week, Two Girls From Egypt—which might appeal to the female demographic of wives and girlfriends who have become temporary World Cup widows.

On the more high-brow end of the entertainment spectrum, the World Cup makes a smaller dent.
“We’re not worried. The football fans are football fans and the theater fans are theater fans,” said Hisham Gomaa, manager of the Salam Theater on Qasr El Aini Street. The theater is currently holding final rehearsals for a new play called King of the Beggars

The play should debut during the later stages of the tournament, but Gomaa still expects to draw a good crowd. He recalls the 1998 World Cup when he was an employee at the National Theater. On the night of the World Cup final between Brazil and France, the theater drew a packed house.

And while Egyptians won’t be able to root for their own team this time around, the 2010 World Cup presents a whole other prospect—the opportunity to root AGAINST the only Arab country in the tournament. Algeria beat out Egypt for a World Cup spot in a nasty series of matches that spiraled into genuine conflict between the two peoples. Judging from some of the reactions so far, the bad blood still lingers.

Mohsen Mohammed, Manager of the Zezeinia coffee shop in Giza (which has a Jazeera Sport subscription) said one of the biggest crowds he has drawn so far was for the Algeria-Slovenia match.

“They were all rooting for Slovenia,” he said, laughing.

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