DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Authorities on Saturday night turned thousands of fans away from a concert celebrating the World Cup that starts the next day in Qatar, highlighting the challenges Doha faces in trying to crowd the crowds at the tightest FIFA tournament ever.
Disappointed fans largely took it easy when they were turned away. Outside the venue, Qatari police, security guards and others led the thousands away with giant foam fingers, megaphones and flashing traffic batons.
But the sprawling concert comes before the rest of the 1.2 million fans expected for the tournament arrive in this tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula.
And Qatar just decided on Friday to ban beer sales in tournament stadiumsFan zones like the one on the Corniche, where the concert is held, will be the only FIFA-associated areas where pints will be served – meaning more fans could end up there.
“We know what the police are saying here,” said a 30-year-old Mumbai trucker who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. He and his friends were given a rare day off from Hamad port to walk 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) to the fan zone before being turned away.
“We are sad that we have to go because it is too early,” he added. “We can not do anything.”
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees the World Cup, did not immediately respond to questions about the fan zone turning away crowds on Saturday night.
Qatar, home to 3 million people, will see an increase in population as the tournament begins. It has spent over $200 billion on improvements in this energy-rich country, which is slightly larger than Jamaica.
This includes a huge new subway system that can take fans from the airport to the games. It even closed schools for a month and urged residents to work from home.
However, Associated Press journalists have seen bottlenecks where overwhelming numbers of people can be crammed together before the tournament even begins.
In Doha’s Souq Waqif, a major tourist destination, a walkway between outdoor restaurants quickly filled shoulder to shoulder on Friday night. There were long lines at the nearby subway station, with some jostling and jostling between orderlies and those catching the train.
However, Saturday night got off to a much smoother start as Friday is the mandatory day off for all workers in the country. Fewer people stormed the Corniche when a massive fireworks display suddenly went off, illuminating Doha’s glittering skyline for awed passers-by.
Just after 8pm, however, crowds thronged the fan zone hoping to catch a concert featuring Lebanese singer Myriam Fares and Colombian singer Maluma. But as hundreds crowded into a holding pen, thousands more waited outside the venue.
At one exit, the crowd tried to force their way in, with a few spectators sneaking past the guards. At one entrance, a security guard with a megaphone implored the crowd: “For your safety, please go back!”
Some stayed and waited, hoping for a chance to get in, like Ayman Awad, a geologist who flew into Qatar from Sudan on Saturday.
“I will not give up,” said Awad. “I hope it doesn’t stay that crowded.”
Many foreign fans are aware of restrictions on freedom of expression in QatarThey were wary of criticizing the host country while they waited. A group of Saudi tourists who expressed disappointment at the situation to an AP journalist later withdrew their quotes for fear of getting involved in “politics.”
The Fan Zone in Al Bidda Park is also planning other big concerts during the tournament. But it has taken on new meaning following Friday’s decision to ban alcohol sales in stadiums: it will be one of the few places outside of hotel bars and private homes where fans in this conservative Islamic nation can enjoy a drink while they party.
On Saturday night, a quick series of calls to several bars in Doha’s West Bay, an area teeming with high-end hotels, revealed they were all booked up the night before the tournament as the fan zone was closed.
But the real test begins on Sunday when Ecuador meet Qatar in the opening game and the group stage follows – with the spectators to come.