It is easier for me to strike a football conversation with a total stranger across a bar table than with my next door neighbour, with whom I haven’t had more than monosyllabic guttural acknowledgment whenever we happen to see each other, which is rare. A bar conversation finds common ground quickly even as we support different World Cup teams.
It happened recently when I was watching England play Iran. A ripple of excitement swept through the pub when Bukayo Saka netted two goals in England’s opening game against Iran to become the youngest Englishman to score two or more goals at a World Cup.I was following the game at my local, and seated next to me was this guy who was clearly an Arsenal fan, going by the way his face lit up at Bukayo’s incredible feat. It was easy to fall into conversation with him because we support the same club, and which is why I have never supported the English national team. For some reason the English side is always dominated by Manchester United players, and given that that club are our sworn rivals I obviously wouldn’t support a team in which they dominate. The English national team also rarely live up to the billing of their domestic media as World Cup favourites and have not reached the finals since they won the cup in 1966.
However, this year, some Arsenal fans, like the stranger seated across from me, have warmed up to the ‘Three Lions’, the English national squad, for the sake of cheering on Arsenal’s top talent, from the club level to the national team. Traditionally, scores of football fans have carried their favourite club biases into the choice of teams to support during the World Cup, following their favourite Premier and Champions League stars to their home team, choosing Sadio Mane interchangeably with Senegal and making reference of ‘coming home’ to mean 10,6636 kilometres away in London, where their clubs are domiciled.
Kenyan fans, having resigned to the reality that there is almost zero chance of the country participating in the World Cup anytime soon, have to choose among the 32 teams battling it out to lift Silvio Gazzaniga’s 6.1 kilograms, 18-carat gold trophy and to become in its designer’s words “Uomo ingigantito dalla vittoria”. Man transformed into a giant by victory. However, whichever team a Kenyan chooses to support at the World Cup might have already been decided for them by the behemoth that is the global football business, and which entails exclusive TV rights and the cut-throat monopoly of multinational media companies in the Kenyan and Sub-Saharan market and the world.
“It is true the broadcasting monopolies have railroaded us to the five top European leagues and are the reason why the English Premier League is a very big brand here,’’ Robin Toskin, the Standard Media Group’s Sports Editor, said when I asked him if he saw any correlations between the teams Kenyans are supporting in the World Cup with the popular leagues being broadcasted here. ‘‘The continent has been segmented between a few major multinational companies that have split the continent into Francophone and Arab speaking countries and English speaking Sub Saharan Africa.”
The World Cup attracts billions of viewers globally making it the world’s biggest sporting event estimated to draw $2 billion from the world’s biggest brands seeking to to promote brands. Besides advertising, ticket sales, hospitality, licensing, and TV rights which brings in over 90 percent of World Cup incomes. The fight for the money is cut throat and accusations of foul play are common. When the tiny country of Qatar beat the Americans to host the current world cup, the US accused Fifa of systemic corruption and bribery claims, launched FBI raids on the football governing body and Fifa President Sep Blatter was forced to resign.
In 1994 when the cumulative World Cup viewership hit the all time high of 32.1 billion I doubt that they counted me. I watched that World Cup at our old house dangling off a little experimental affordable housing project in Kisumu. That was three decades ago when hoisting a TV aerial above the roof of your house was an invitation for robbers and the government functionaries checking whether you have a permit, we followed grainy football footage while adjusting the internal ‘v’ shaped aerial antenna. Sometimes you had to hold it and act as conductor, absorbing the electromagnetic field and converting it into radio frequencies. The World Cup was a communal event. Back then only a few Middle Class homes owned TV sets and the only broadcasters were the state-controlled broadcasters like Kenya Broadcasting corporation (KBC). Back then the choice of who to support usually followed previous record performances from the likes of Roberto Baggio. Corporate branding on chewing gum stickers also played a part besides the wisdom of inheritance where parental biases were indiscriminately passed down.
KBC was a beneficiary of the newly independent Pan Africanists in the 1960s who formed the Union Of National Radio and Television Organizations of Africa (Urtna) as a collaborative effort to help them bid for global tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics in collaboration with France media company Canal+ and resold them to member broadcasting organisations at subsidised rates. Urtna however failed to hold fort against the onslaught of multinationals like Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB, ITV and Multichoice at a time when African countries were facing budget cuts on ‘luxury’ spending through the International Monetary Fund led structural adjustments.
Kenyan market was liberalised and KTN was introduced in the a 1990s, followed by MultiChoice in 1995 which enjoyed a near monopoly in Pay TV for 12 years, securing exclusive rights to broadcast the European Super cup, European Champions League, the English League and Spanish la Liga. In 2007 a new player entered the market – the Gateway Broadcast Service subsidiary GTV Kenya. However, their presence was short just two years in, when they unceremoniously went off air just before a Manchester United and Everton clash, leaving customers with unresponsive decoders as GTV Kenya was wound up and liquidated. Chinese company Star Times has also made little inroads evoking geopolitical panic from the Western media.
But the one thing that has truly democratised content and how people access entertainment is the internet. Almost overnight consumers have migrated from channels that require capital intensive physical infrastructure and logistics to distribute like music tapes to YouTube. Online streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon and Disney are taking over the movie business, offering cheaper rates and a wider array of entertainment options. Widespread access to high-speed internet has seen scores of football fans turn to pirate websites where they can stream live football matches for free, with the immense freedom that the internet brings, testing long-held ideas on intellectual property. Websites like hesgoal.com make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to view sports content. The migration online has been phenomenal, at some point forcing Multichoice to sue Kenyan Internet Service Providers Safaricom and Jamii Telcom, alleging that over 140 Websites were pirating their content on the ISPs’ networks.
The politics of sports TV rights subtly shape our perceptions as well as financial decisions. Many fans at the bar are today called ‘investors’. Sports betting, estimated to be worth $40 million in Kenya, has caught the fancy of many around the local pub, more concerned about the betting odds than supporting specific teams. They rely on any illusion of rationality and that is why familiar players, punditry and guesses such as the Joshua Bull’s Oxford Mathematical model that predicted the route to the 2022 World Cup are so popular. Predictions that could not have foreseen that Belgium would exit at Group stage when they were seen as favourites to reach the finals.
World Cup surprises like Morocco towering over Croatia, Belgium and Canada to lead Group F and going the whole rout to the semis; surprise Japan and Australia advancing past the group stage along Africa’s Senegal show that football is growing beautiful in spaces we are not being exposed to. What has been the absence of Italy, the early exit of Germany and Argentina’s scare start against Saudi Arabia, might mean in future the World Cup may head to a non-traditional country. And it might just catch us by surprise as man is transformed into a giant by victory.