Watching football is not a civil right

Yes it’s irritating that Ukraine vs England will only be shown on the internet. But a ‘national disgrace’? Hardly.

Duleep Allirajah

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Ukraine vs England live on the internet? It’s novel, I’ll give you that. But a ‘national disgrace’? Oh please stop bleating.

The World Cup qualifier was originally going to be shown live on Setanta. However, the Irish TV company went into liquidation in June 2009 and the exclusive rights to show the game were subsequently acquired by the digital sports broadcaster Perform. Fans who want to watch the match online will be charged between £4.99 and £11.99 for the privilege.

Giddy with excitement? Can’t wait to subscribe? No, me neither. I think I’ll wash the car. Or trim the garden hedge. Or something. There’s back-to-back re-runs of Relocation Relocation on More4. Why won’t I be logging on for Ingerland? For a start, it’s a dead rubber. England have already qualified for South Africa so there’s nothing riding on this match. But, more importantly, the prospect of watching football hunched over my laptop isn’t particularly appetising. We’ve all succumbed to broadband rage when watching YouTube. Imagine the frustration of trying to follow a football match through an unstable broadband connection. Rooney’s through on goal. He must score. Oh my word, he’s been pixellated!

So, no thanks. I won’t be an early adopter. But nor will I be joining the chorus of complaints that the game won’t be shown live on terrestrial television. The Daily Mirror branded it a ‘national disgrace’. ‘A situation where 18million people who do not own a computer will not be able to watch the game represents a betrayal’, fumed the Mirror’s chief sports writer Oliver Holt. ‘It’s an outrage. Watching football is a social thing’, said Mark Perryman of the official England Supporters’ Club. ‘To force fans to pay to sit in front of a small computer screen is just not on. The internet is fine for watching highlights of games, but not something like this.’

Okay, let’s disentangle these issues. I agree that watching football is social. It’s more fun to watch a game collectively. However, unless you can access the internet via your TV then you and your mates are going to have to huddle round the PC. It doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? If you don’t have a broadband connection – and 40 per cent of households still don’t – then you could, I guess, pop down to your local internet café. Or maybe not.

The problem with football over the internet is that the infrastructure isn’t yet in place to deliver the same quality of viewing experience that we expect from television. Broadband speeds aren’t fast enough. Servers get overloaded. You couldn’t really watch with a group of friends. It just wouldn’t work. But although it isn’t ideal, although the screen might freeze or your browser might crash, watching football online isn’t completely new. Last season, Perform charged fans £4 to watch Manchester City and Spurs UEFA Cup games on the internet. Many English football fans also log on to illegal websites which stream live Premiership games that are being televised in other countries. The quality might not be great, but some football fans will go to any lengths to watch their team.

Of course, it would be preferable if the Ukraine game was shown on TV. You could get the beers and nachos in and invite a few friends round or, alternatively, watch the game down the pub. But is it really a ‘national disgrace’ and a ‘betrayal’ that the match isn’t being shown live on terrestrial TV? What exactly is it that is being betrayed? Is there such a thing as a ‘right-to-watch-football-on-TV’? Of course not. Yes, we’d all much rather pay nothing to watch football. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Free-to-air football has never been an Englishman’s birthright. I can remember the bad old days when there was hardly any live football on TV. As I recall, England’s away games weren’t always shown live on TV in the past. Somehow, we managed to survive this terrible privation. Now we have saturation TV coverage of football and still some people aren’t happy.

‘A World Cup qualifier should be available for everybody on free-to-air TV’, insists Mark Perryman. Before we chain ourselves to the railings of Downing Street, shouldn’t we just pause to consider whether missing a football match is anything more than an irritating inconvenience? What were the five ‘giant evils’ in 1940s Britain that William Beveridge wanted to eradicate? They were, lest we forget: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Being deprived of football wasn’t on the list. If we’re going to campaign for more stuff to be free I’d suggest that there were one or two more deserving causes. Nursery provision or personal care for the elderly might just take precedence. There are far more important things to get your knickers in a twist about than not being able to watch a football match on TV.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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