After four long years of anticipation, Burmese sports fans are set for a month-long football festival as the World Cup kicks off in Brazil late on Thursday night or– let’s face it – early Friday morning.
A total of 64 matches will be held from 12 June to 13 July, but with Brazil lying nine and a half hours behind Burmese time, almost all games are scheduled to be televised live in the middle of the night.
Nonetheless, many fans say they will stay up and watch the games – while employers worry about bleary-eyed workers and an increase in sick days during the competition.
The World Cup this year will only be available on the SkyNet channel, a satellite TV operator, which has secured a contract with FIFA, the world football governing body, to be sole broadcaster in Burma for the tournament.
Those without access to SkyNet are left frustrated, and many will be banking on Thai TV broadcasts or streaming matches from the Internet.
Sithu Aung Myint, a well-known columnist, says SkyNet is violating their agreement with FIFA.
“I have been digging into this, and I’m discovering more and more dirt,” he told DVB. “SkyNet did not tell the public how they acquired the broadcasting rights. Channels around the world who acquire rights from FIFA are obliged to broadcast 22 matches free. But because the SkyNet has no wish to do so, they did not even mention this to viewers – they just flagrantly sell cable boxes, and of course they are making a lot of profit.”
DVB’s Mandalay-based reporter Kyaw Zay said residents in the city will head to regular screening venues such as restaurants which show the English Premier League throughout the season.
“I am guessing that most fans in Mandalay will go to restaurants and venues with big screens,” he said. “Most people like to watch the games, drink, gamble and cheer rather than stay at home.”
Myo Hlaing Win, a former striker for the national team, said that Rangoon’s teashops will always be the favourite gathering spots for football aficionados.
“You don’t get the same feeling watching at home. I guess most people are planning to go to the teashops and restaurants that have SkyNet,” he said. “There are venues with two or three big screens so that everyone can see.”
Soccer fan Pho Thar from Naypyidaw echoed the impression that most night-owl soccer buffs will head for their regular restaurants and sports bars.
“Watching at home makes people sleepy – it’s more exciting if a group of friends is watching together,” he said.
But Thura Tin Oo, the patron and founder of the National League for Democracy, said he for one won’t be watching many matches this year.
“I was planning to go to sleep early so I could get up early and catch the games, but the schedule is just too awkward,” he told DVB. “I am 88 years of age, and I need to be careful. But as a football fan, I would really want to watch the games as the World Cup comes around only once every four years and it’s the most intense football competition. I guess I might force myself to get up for some crucial matches.”
Meanwhile in Thailand, where thousands of Burmese migrants work, getting out to bars and restaurants for the games might be a tricky proposition as the country is currently under martial law and a midnight curfew.
But, for a handful of more fortunate Burmese fans, there will be no need to set alarm clocks. At least 20 have bought full tour packages to fly to Brazil for the month and can watch the games live at the stadiums. Win Honey, operations manager at Gandawin Shwe Bagan tour company, said his firm arranged tickets, flights and accommodation for about 20 diehard fans. The cost? US$12,000 each.