These Saudi soccer fans were able to get to Russia to see their team play. At home, supporters are resorting to less savory means. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team will take the field at the World Cup for the first time in 12 years Thursday, opening the tournament with a match against host Russia in Moscow that will be watched by hundreds of millions around the world.

The millions of Saudi Arabians watching at home, meanwhile, will be doing so illegally thanks to a dispute with neighboring Qatar that has been simmering for more than 150 years but has reached its boiling point over the past year.

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On the surface, the feud between Qatar, a peninsular nation that juts into the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt centers on Qatar’s support for Islamist revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring uprisings earlier this decade. In response, its four opponents — fearing that such political movements could threaten their long-held dynastic monarchies — began boycotting Qatar, closing airspace to the country’s national airline, restricting travel and, according to the New York Times, expelling 12,000 Qatari camel that were grazing on Saudi land.

The boycotting countries also banned broadcasts by Al Jazeera, the Qatari news network that often airs unflattering and critical stories about the region’s other ruling families. This is where the World Cup comes into play: Al Jazeera owns beIN Sports, which owns the right to air tournament games in the Middle East. Without that network, the boycotting countries would be unable to watch soccer’s quadrennial celebration.

Or, at least that was the thinking. Faced with the prospect of missing its team’s matches, someone in Saudi Arabia created a pirate cable network with the nose-thumbing name of beoutQ and began selling cable boxes that gave Saudis access to 10 channels, one of them pirating beIN Sports’s feed. They’ve been on sale for months, with a one-year subscription costing $100, the Times reports.

It’s a sophisticated operation, suggesting both great technical know-how and significant financial backing. BeoutQ superimposes its logo over the beIN Sports logo during its sports broadcasts. Officials at beIN Sports told the Times they tracked the beoutQ signal to the Riyadh-based satellite provider Arabsat, which is majority owned by Saudi Arabia. (No one has claimed responsibility.)

Tom Keaveny, beIN’s managing director for the Middle East, told the Times last month that the operation “takes industrial scale knowledge and ability and multimillion dollar funding.”

“This isn’t someone in their bedroom,” he added.

BeIN Sports — which before the boycott had more than 900,000 subscribers in Saudi Arabia, its largest market — has every right to be angry, considering the billions it has paid for the rights to air World Cup games. Now someone is stealing that content, and brazenly so. The Qatari network has spent thousands of dollars trying to shut down beoutQ, with no success. A FIFA-brokered deal in which Saudi Arabia would pay Qatar $35 million for the right to legally air 22 matches, including all of the games featuring the national team, fell apart earlier this month, with Saudi sports authority chief Turki Al Alshikh accusing the Qataris of backtracking on the agreement and the Qataris claiming the price never was agreed upon, according to Bloomberg.

Egypt, whose team is back in the World Cup after a long absence (28 years), also is part of the Qatar blockade and may follow a similarly brazen path. On Monday, according to Variety, the Egyptian Competition Authority said its nation’s consumers have “a right” to see the games, urged FIFA to “make them available” and promised to steal beIN Sports’s feed to 22 matches to air them on Egyptian public television. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, was able to broker a deal with beIN Sports.

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