DOHA, Qatar — Qatar made a sudden U-turn in its deal to secure the football tournament, just two days before the opening game of the conservative Muslim emirate, by banning the sale of beer in World Cup stadiums on Friday.
This move is the latest indication of the tension created by the fact that the event, which is not just a sports tournament but a party that will last for months, is held in the autocratic country where the sale of alcohol is heavily restricted. It was also a major blow to World Cup beer sponsor Budweiser, raising questions about how much control FIFA had over the tournament.
When Qatar launched its bid to host the World Cup, the country agreed to FIFA’s terms for selling alcohol in stadiums – but details were only released in September, just 11 weeks before kickoff, which shows how tense negotiations can be. Non-alcoholic beer will continue to be sold at eight stadiums, while champagne, wine, whiskey and other spirits will be served in the arena’s luxury hospitality areas, FIFA said in a statement on Friday.
However, the vast majority of ticket holders do not have access to these areas; They will be able to drink alcoholic beer in the evenings, known as the FIFA Fan Festival, which is a special party area where live music and events are also offered. Outside of tournament venues, Qatar has strict limits on the purchase and consumption of alcohol, but its sale in hotel bars has been allowed for years.
FIFA said, “Following discussions between host country officials and FIFA, it has been decided that sales of alcoholic beverages will focus on the FIFA Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, and that beer outlets … will be removed from the stadium perimeter.” In a statement.
Some football fans took the decision step by step, stating that they knew the rules would be different in Qatar.
“We’re not here to drink beer,” said Adel Abou Hana, a fan from the United States. “We’re here to watch world-class football.”
However, Federico Ferraz complained that the decision was taken in such a short time. “I think it’s kind of bad because for me, beer and football go hand in hand,” said Ferraz, who is from Portugal.
When the news broke, Budweiser’s Twitter account tweeted, “Well, that’s weird…” without going into detail. The tweet was later deleted.
Budweiser’s parent company, Ab InBev, admitted in a statement that some of its plans “could not move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.”
The company pays tens of millions of dollars for the exclusive rights to sell beer at each World Cup, and has already shipped most of its stock from England to Qatar in anticipation of selling its product to millions of fans. While actual sales from the tournament aren’t a significant percentage of the massive company’s revenues, the World Cup still presents an important branding opportunity.
The company’s partnership with FIFA began at the 1986 tournament and they are in talks to renew their deal for the next World Cup to be held in North America.
Ronan Evain, managing director of fan group Football Supporters Europe, described the decision to ban the sale of beer in stadiums in Qatar as “extremely worrying”.
“For many fans who don’t drink alcohol or are used to drying stadium policies at home, it’s a detail. It won’t change their tournament,” Evain wrote on Twitter. “But with 48 hours to go, we entered dangerous territory where ‘safeguards’ no longer matter.”
Ruled by a hereditary emir that has absolute control over all government decisions, Qatar, like neighboring Saudi Arabia, follows an ultra-conservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism. Qatar has transformed into an ultra-modern hub in recent years following the natural gas boom of the 1990s, but has come under pressure from within to stay true to its Islamic heritage and Bedouin roots.
Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol, and several Muslims living in Qatar applauded the decision on Friday, stating that visitors should respect the country’s traditions.
As the World Cup approaches, human rights groups have expressed concerns about how the country will host millions of foreign fans.
The Qatari government and the High Committee of Delivery and Heritage did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Friday wasn’t Qatar’s first comeback — but it was the most important. Last weekend, AB InBev was surprised by a new policy that Qatari organizers insisted to move beer stalls to less visible locations within stadium campuses.
And Qatar also changed the date of the opening match just weeks before the World Cup kicks off.