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Qatar, in reversal, bans alcohol sales at World Cup stadiums

Budweiser kiosks at Khalila International Stadium in Doha, Qatar on Friday, ahead of the World Cup. (Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

DOHA, Qatar — The more than 1 million fans expected to attend the World Cup, set to begin here Sunday, were promised beer, Qatar’s teetotaling conservatism aside. But just two days before the first match, the hot desert country has resealed the keg.

World Cup organizers said Friday that they were abandoning plans to sell beer around match stadiums, after Qatar had pledged beer “within the stadium perimeter” for designated periods before and after games.

A statement by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, said the decision came “following discussions between host country authorities and FIFA,” but did not give any further detail on the reasons for the decision. Beer would continue to be sold in other areas designated for World Cup fans, the statement said. But the Cup would be far drier than attendees had been led to believe.

The move followed a New York Times report that the Qatari royal family had grown concerned that beer stations around the stadiums would unsettle locals.

The decision potentially violates a major deal FIFA has with Budweiser. Ab InBev, which owns Budweiser, paid a reported $75 million for World Cup sponsorship rights. It remains unclear how the about-face would affect that deal.

“Well, this is awkward …,” the company said, in a tweet it quickly deleted, Friday morning after the announcement.

In a statement, Budweiser noted that it had been a partner with FIFA for more than three decades and said that “some of the planned stadium activations cannot move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.”

Qatar, a conservative, Muslim-majority country, strictly limits the sale of alcohol and bans its consumption in public places. It had made exceptions to those rules for the World Cup, announcing that ticket holders would have access to beer beginning three hours before matches, and for an hour after the final whistle.

In walking back its position, Qatar joins a rich tradition of restricting alcohol at the World Cup. For the majority of the Cup’s history, FIFA’s official policy included a ban on alcohol sales and distribution in the stadium. The policy changed after the 2002 World Cup, held in South Korea and Japan, according to a report published by the research institute RAND Europe.

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When the World Cup came to Brazil in 2014, it had to contend with a 2003 federal ban on alcohol in stadiums meant to reduce violence during matches. The law was changed.

“Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we’re going to have them,” then-FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke said in the run up to the 2014 event, The Washington Post reported. “Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that’s something we won’t negotiate.”

In 2018, the World Cup was hosted in Russia, which banned alcohol sales at sports stadiums, with an eye to reducing riots. The ban was lifted for the World Cup as part of the country’s deal with FIFA, but a ban was kept on alcohol sales outside of designated fan zones, during and preceding matches.

Around the world, fans, sports organizations and officials weighed in on Qatar’s decision, which received praise along with criticism.

“This is not a matter of ‘Qatari conservatism’, as it is implied, but public health, safety and order,” Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.

The Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), the national representative body for soccer fans in England and Wales, published a statement saying that the “real issue” wasn’t the sale of alcohol, but “the last minute U-turn which speaks to a wider problem — the total lack of communications and clarity from the organizing committee towards the supporters.”

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Some fans on Twitter seized on outrage over the decision to draw attention to more serious controversies, such as reports of abuse against migrant workers building the World Cup stadium. Migrant laborers and their families have spoken out about unexplained deaths and abuses suffered while working on infrastructure for the tournament.

For more than a decade, fans and human rights activists have worried that World Cup attendees would come into collision with Qatar’s laws, including those that criminalize sex for LGBTQ people and many forms of protest. The change on beer, while narrow, could spark fears that other assurances from officials that international visitors would be accommodated could be withdrawn.

Healy reported from Washington. Steven Goff contributed to this report.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.