Australian midfielder Mile Jedinak (center) celebrates  after scoring a penalty kick  during the World Cup Group C match between Denmark and Australia at the Samara Arena in Russia on June 21, 2018. Photo: AFP / Emmanuel Dunand
Australian midfielder Mile Jedinak (center) celebrates after scoring a penalty kick during the World Cup Group C match between Denmark and Australia at the Samara Arena in Russia on June 21, 2018. Photo: AFP / Emmanuel Dunand

Whatever happens at the 2018 World Cup for the Australian national soccer team on the fields of Russia, back home there seems to be something brewing. The country has been up in arms over problems in coverage of the competition, and even the prime minister got involved. If soccer ever becomes the No 1 sport Down Under, this June will be remembered as a significant step.

In the past, the Special Broadcasting Service, a publicly funded network known as SBS, had been the home of soccer on Australian television and had a long relationship with the World Cup. For 2018 however, the free-to-air broadcaster actually had the rights but then sold the majority of games to Optus, a major telecommunications company.

It meant that fans who wanted to watch all the games had either to sign up to this new mobile provider or existing customers had to pay a A$15 (US$11) extra fee to watch the games in Russia. They would then be able to follow the live stream on phones, tablets or televisions.

The problem was the stream. Many customers had no problem but a significant minority reported problems of buffering or no stream at all that made the games unwatchable. Former national team players such as Robbie Slater got involved and called the service a disgrace.

Soccer often struggles to make the back pages in a country that has a competitive sports market, but here it was splashed all over the front pages, with The Daily Telegraph going with the headline of “Floptus” in massive letters. It made for painful reading for the company’s executives, who were accused of scoring own goals night after night.

“Optus is hopeless. If you can’t deliver the product you are selling, then you go out of business,” presenter Karl Stefanovic said on Australian breakfast television. “The problem is no one can sell it as they don’t have the rights, Optus has the rights. I’m racking my brains to think of when SBS had a problem showing the World Cup – ever.”

It was turning into a public relations disaster for Optus, which had a year earlier bought the rights to show English Premier League soccer games live in a bid to win new subscribers from rival companies.

Chief executive officer Allen Lew issued an apology on June 17, six days after the tournament started.  “We should have done better, we can do better and we will do better,” he said.

“Australians can be assured that this has my personal attention, and the entire network team’s attention, and we will solve it.”

Yet the issues continued and anger grew. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull got involved the next day.

“I have spoken with the Optus CEO, Allen Lew. He assures me he is giving the World Cup streaming problems his personal attention and he believes it will be fixed this evening,” Turnbull tweeted.

The prime minister was accused of political opportunism, taking on a popular cause, but it was also a significant event with the country’s leading politician talking of the need for the public to be able to watch soccer games.

More than 3 million tuned in to SBS to watch Australia lose 2-1 to France in the opening week as the broadcaster has all Socceroo games (which have, by law, to be available on free-to-air television) and a few more besides.

As the issues continued, Optus announced that games on June 19 and 20 would be given to SBS. This arrangement was then extended to all the group games, which runs up to June 28. That means Optus doesn’t have long to sort out its issues.

Optus offered a refund to customers of their A$15 and free access to their services up to August 31, which will give customers a chance to watch a number of English Premier League games.

“They had no choice but to do that,” Stuart Simson, the chairman of digital marketing and advertising agency Switch Digital, told ABC News Online. “That was the right move because really the critical thing for a telco is to win subscribers and keep them.”

Optus will have to do more to restore its battered reputation. But first it has to restore quality streams of the World Cup to disgruntled customers as Australia shows that it may be a soccer country after all.