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The Twitter tournament: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

The Twitter tournament: This week in Middle East football

The Arab Club Championship is back after a four-year hiatus [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 July, 2017

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Blog: The Arab Club Championship represents a serious mark for sports broadcasting as it becomes the first football tournament to be broadcast live on Twitter, writes Uri Levy.
The Arab Club Championship kicked off this weekend in Egypt. For the next two weeks, teams from the Middle East, North Africa and across the region will compete in three groups, with four teams in each, in two stadiums - Cairo and Alexandria.

The final will be held on August 5th.

Al-Ahly and Zamalek (Egypt), Al-Ahed (Lebanon), Al-Faisaly (Jordan) and Al-Merreikh (Sudan), are all competing for the trophy.

While it is a fascinating sporting event, with symbolic meaning for the Middle East as a whole, the Arab Club Championship is first of all an historic event in the era of the internet and social networks.

Twitter-cast

The Arab Club Championship is the first full football tournament to be broadcast live on Twitter. It's not the first attempt to broadcast a live sporting event on the tweeting social network - NFL games and Wimbledon 2016 (where the broadcasts were delayed by medium and high quality) - were the first tastes of how Twitter will take to sports broadcasting.

The Pac-12, one of the best college athletics competitions in the United States, also helped Twitter fix the weak parts of its broadcast tech, and in April 2017, Twitter had its first full live football game broadcast in the app itself - The CONCACAF (North and Central America) Champions League, between Pachuca and the Mexican Tigers.

This was the official rehearsal for the Arab Club Championship. Each of the tournament's games will be broadcast live, with an excellent graphics package, with commentary from On Sports.

The Arab Club Championship is a serious mark for sports broadcasting - the future is already here.

Potential ratings of millions 

Many questions pop up when considering the concept of broadcasting a tournament on the internet. So who is actually going to watch? Is it worthwhile to Twitter? The answer is yes.

In the Middle East, as of 2017, there are about 250 million people, making up about 3.3 percent of the world's population. As of March 2017, close to 142 million people in the region were measured using the internet daily, through their mobile phone.

This means that more than half of the population of the Middle East consumes media via their phones on a daily basis. According to Internet World Stats, the entire region (including Iran, Turkey and Israel) has seen a large jump in the number of users since 2000 - 4,220 percent - secondary only to Africa, which has grown by more than 7,000 percent.

Any reasonable person knows that these high numbers should be taken with limited liability, since Twitter has fewer than six million users in the Middle East.

But Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, and Sela Sport, the Saudi company specialising in sports business and digital sports products that launched the tournament's streaming, did not build on expectations from the Middle East alone. In an ingenious step, they opened the possibility of viewing the games even to those who do not have a Twitter account, but simply looking for a live game online.

Here, they took into account that, beyond 317 million Twitter users, there would be hits from Asia and Australia, whether to scout for rivalries to Asian competitions or gambling needs. Asia and Oceania count for more than half the world's internet population - with nearly two billion people. That's a lot of people. Lots of potential viewers.

 
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Given the restrictions on the number of fans in stadiums in Egypt, the Twitter viewers, and the tweets that will be published about the championship, are what will keep this tournament alive.

Many of those who enjoy the interface that Twitter has established - watching the match and tweeting at the same time - are often excluded from the football fields in the Middle East - the women. Almost 40 percent of Twitter users in the Arab region are women, who can now enjoy watching, free, by their phone, an international football tournament.

As far as Twitter is concerned, this is an innovative experiment that could boost the company's value and sharpen its relevance in the social networking world.

"Football fans in the world and in the Middle East are turning to Twitter not only to follow their favourite teams, but also to discuss and talk about what is going on in the world of football in real time," says Kinda Ibrahim, director of Twitter's media cooperation in the Middle East and Africa.

"'Arab clubs' is to create a unique viewing and discussion experience for fans from all over the world, on the same platform."

Once the two-week tournament is broadcast, Twitter will be able to submit proposals for additional sports events, thereby strengthening its position as the front-end platform in the global change in sports broadcasting.

A short history and lots of politics

With all the noise surrounding Twitter's live-streaming revolution, the tournament will also present some actual football. The Arab Club Championship is a new version of the Arab Champions Cup tournament, an annual competition that was first played in 1982.

The tournament was founded in order to strengthen and revive Arab national identity, then at the nadir of its decline, and to demonstrate the power of the "Arab nation" through football.

It has been cancelled several times over the years as a result of wars (Lebanon in the 1980s, the Gulf War in the 1990s), various political tensions (the Arab Spring), or simply a lack of coordination between clubs and the Arab Football Association over dates and locations. The last tournament was played in 2013; the one before it in 2009.

If in the first years of the tournament it attracted national champions and the lions of the Middle East and North Africa on a regular basis, it is evident that with the multiplicity of competitions in which the major teams now compete, there has been a change in the identity of the clubs at the tournament. That said, the two Egyptian giants are here, while Saudi Al-Hilal and Al-Nasser of Riyadh are here too, as are Hussein Dey, the Algerian Cup holder.

Fatah Union Sport Rabat, the previous champion of Morocco, who won the championship in 2016 for the first time in its history, is on the scene, as are Al-Wahda of the UAE, who entered the tournament only after Al-Ain, Amoory's team, withdrew from the tournament in order to prepare for the decisive stages of the Asian Champions League that will return at the end of August.

The tournament qualifying began in February, divided into two tracks - Asia and Africa. Teams from Bahrain, Mauritania, Oman, Comoros and Palestine also tried their luck in getting through to these finals.

The teams that are absent from the tournament are from Qatar. The reason for this is not the continuing Gulf diplomatic crisis, but rather a precursor to it. When the tournament was announced at the end of 2016, Qatar was chosen as a host.

Then, the Egyptian authorities were engaged in an all-out war against the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Qatar is said to be a tacit supporter. The Egyptian Football Association made it difficult for Al-Ahly, giants of the regional game, to register for the tournament.

Qatar, which saw the direction in which the situation was heading, decided to leave the tournament relatively quietly and give up the rights to host it. Who took them? That's right. Egypt. In fact, even back then there was tension between Qatar and the Egyptian-Saudi bloc, which was expressed in football.

Politics aside, the Arab Club Championship is a special event. In the shadow of political tension in Egypt and the wider Middle East, the Arab world will try to demonstrate its modern, "unified" side.

This "unified" side which celebrates collective Arab identity, which is connected to Twitter and social networks, unites around football. And above all, it is the side that is celebrating the fact that the football revolution is making one of its first and most important moves on its own field.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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