DOHA — Soccer fans savored their first sips of beer at the launch of a fan festival where they could drink alcohol at this year’s Fifa World Cup which began on Sunday.
This is the first time for the sport’s most prestigious event to be held in a conservative Muslim country with strict controls on alcohol, the consumption of which is banned in public.
Qatar and Fifa hope the spotlight will turn to action on the pitch after facing mounting criticism over foreign workers’ rights, LGBT rights and other restrictions such as the ban on public displays of affection.
Amid those rules, Denmark’s and Germany’s team captains will wear One Love armbands, their teams said.
As of this reporting, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the presidents of Egypt and Algeria were among the region’s leaders expected to attend, perhaps in a show of Arab solidarity. The United Nations secretary-general was also in Doha.
Onstage, South Korean singer Jung Kook of K-pop band BTS will perform a new official tournament song called “Dreamers,” alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi.
‘Party of the world’
In a last-minute U-turn on Friday before the opening match, FIFA said alcoholic beer would not be sold at Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.
Budweiser, a major World Cup sponsor, had been set to exclusively sell beer within the ticketed perimeter surrounding each of the eight stadiums three hours before and one hour after each game during the month-long event.
Now fans may only drink beer at the FIFA Fan Festival, although alcoholic beverages remain available at the stadium hospitality areas.
One Mexican fan in a sombrero, his country’s tricolor flag draped over his shoulders, balanced a cardboard drink holder containing four beers as he joined a group of his compatriots at Doha’s Al Bidda Park, hosting the FIFA Fan Festival which began on the eve of the games.
“Not having alcohol is not good because the World Cup [is the] party of the world,” said Brazilian fan Julio Cesar, wearing a felt hat in his country’s colors.
For fans unfazed by Qatar’s dire rights record, the absence of beer at World Cup venues has proven a major disappointment.
“It’s tough to tell what happened in Qatar, whether it is the truth or not,” said 41-year-old Guilherme, another Brazil fan, adding: “My only problem is banning alcohol.”
Upon his arrival in Doha, Argentina fan Julio Cesar from Buenos Aires said he expected a great atmosphere. “Even though there is no beer we’ll drink before the match,” he said.
From the sidelines
Meanwhile hundreds of workers, all men, gathered in a sports arena in an industrial zone on the city’s edges where they could watch the matches, although no alcohol was served there.
Many of the laborers who toiled to prepare tournament infrastructure will watch from the sidelines. Doha has been slammed for its treatment of migrant workers but points to labor reforms against exploitation.
The event was organized at a cost of $220 billion, making it the most expensive in World Cup history.
Ghanaian national Kasim, a security guard who has worked in Qatar for four years, said he didn’t buy a ticket.
“They’re expensive and I should use that money for other things, like sending it back home to my family,” he said.
But Neville, a 24-year-old Kenyan, and compatriot Willy, also 24 and a Manchester City fan, could watch the matches as they were hired as security guards for the event.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Neville said.
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