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Fans breathe sigh of relief as football returns to screens

Football supporters on Saturday woke up to the news that BeIN Sports channels were no longer blocked across several Gulf countries. Ali Khaled looks back at the panic the blackout had caused.

Football is back on our screens, and everyone can breathe easy again.

On Saturday morning, fans of the beautiful game in the Gulf woke up to find the BeIN Sports channels which carry the rights for the majority of the region’s football coverage – and which have been blocked for several weeks – were once again live. Cancel those plans to immigrate to Munich, Manchester or Milan.

It says something about our collective obsession with football that, rightly or wrongly, the most alarming consequence of the recent political uncertainty in the region for so many people was the possibility of missing out on any action from the coming football season. With the domestic European leagues set to kick off in only a few weeks, just how would we survive without our daily dosage of Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Champions League action?

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While that scenario seems to have been averted, the uproar did cast a light on just how intrinsic football viewing habits have become in our lives. Even during the off season.

The days of football-free summers are long gone and the last few months have seen us miss out on Germany’s triumph at the Confederations Cup in Russia, as well as several age group tournaments, including the U20 Fifa World Cup won by England.

Football’s return meant we could catch up on Sweden’s 2-0 win over Russia at the Uefa Women’s Euro 2017 in Holland at the reasonable hour of 9am. Later on Saturday you could catch Liverpool take on Leicester in Hong Kong, and in the early hours of Sunday, Juventus v Barcelona and PSG v Tottenham in the International Champions Cup in the US.

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Normality is resumed.

Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil in action during a Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium.

But for supporters who grew up in the 70s and 80s, who are now as entitled as any millennial to our rolling supply of football, the idea of regular live coverage was at best an absolute luxury and at worst some unattainable dream.

If you grew up in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the rest of the Gulf, your weekly viewing of English First Division football came in the form of the brilliant highlights show “Big League Soccer”, and for the FA Cup, “Road To Wembley”. The only live football we got was the FA Cup Final, the European Cup final and the annual Home Nations clash between England and Scotland.

That was it. Three, just three, live matches a season.

If you wanted to keep up to date with ongoing weekend matches, your saviour was BBC World Service radio’s “Saturday Special” (all games were played on the same day) presented by the wonderful Paddy Feeny. “There’s been another goal at Anfield [or Old Trafford, or Highbury],” still conjures up priceless memories.

And midweek European matches? Well that meant setting your alarm for 2.45am for BBC’s Sports Roundup and those fuzzy commentary highlights seemingly beamed down by Neil Armstrong from the moon.

These days we take for granted the option of watching any one of the 10 weekly English league matches, and yet in the 1980s and early 1990s, even the UK public would have been lucky to have one. Radio and the beloved, internet-preceding Ceefax (page 337) were your friends back then.

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The launch of the Premier League in the summer of 1992, and the subsequent blanket coverage of practically every major football competition in Europe over the next two decades, changed everything, turning us into football zombies, happy to consume whatever’s on our screens.

Some of us think nothing of watching between five to 10 matches over the course of the weekend. Premier League action over? There’s always German and Spanish football. Or Italian or French. For the insomniacs there’s always Argentinian and Mexican leagues to check out too. Zombies? Yes, but happy zombies.

For a few weeks it looked like we might just have to become more sociable, well rounded individuals.

But now football is back. Please never leave us again.

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