DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Authorities turned away thousands of fans Saturday night from a concert celebrating the World Cup that begins the next day in Qatar, revealing the challenges awaiting Doha as it tries to manage crowds at FIFA’s most complex tournament ever.
Frustrated fans are being turned away in a big way. Out of place, Qatari police, security guards, and others directed thousands away with giant foam fingers, megaphones, and flashing traffic joysticks.
But the packed party comes before the rest of the 1.2 million fans expected to attend the tournament arrive in this tiny country on the Arabian Peninsula..
And only on Friday, Qatar decided to ban beer sales from tournament stadiumsFan areas such as the one on the promenade hosting the concert will be the only FIFA-related area serving pints – meaning more fans could end up there.
“We know what the police say here applies,” said a 30-year-old truck driver from Mumbai who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. He and his friends had been given a rare day off from Hamad Port to walk the 6km (3.7 miles) to the fan zone before being turned away.
“We are sad to leave because it is so early,” he added. “There is nothing we can do.”
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is overseeing the World Cup, said in a statement to The Associated Press that it was “very pleased” with the opening of the Fan Zone.
“The event reached 40,000 people … a sign of its success and popularity,” the committee said.
Qatar, which has a population of 3 million, will see its population increase as the tournament kicks off. It has spent more than $200 billion on improvements throughout this energy-rich country slightly larger than Jamaica.
This includes a huge new underground subway system that can transport fans from the airport to matches. It has even closed schools for the month and urged residents to work from home.
But AP journalists have seen the weaknesses where a huge number of people can be herded together even before a tournament begins.
At Doha’s Souq Waqif, a major tourist destination, the walkway between the open-air restaurants quickly filled up on a Friday night. The nearby metro station saw long lines, with some pushing and pushing between orders and those boarding the train.
However, Saturday night started off in a smoother fashion as Friday is the mandatory day off for all workers in the country. Few people stroll down the Corniche as a massive fireworks display suddenly sets off, illuminating Doha’s glittering skyline to terrified bystanders.
Shortly after 8pm, crowds thronged the Fan Zone, hoping to catch a concert featuring Lebanese singer Myriam Fares and Colombian singer Maluma. But as hundreds squeezed into a holding pen, thousands more waited outside.
At one of the exits, the crowd tried to force its way in, and a few onlookers got past the guards. At the entrance, a security guard with a trumpet appealed to the crowd: “For your own safety, please come back!”
AP journalists saw police on horseback at one point in the fans’ holding area, as well as an armored police van parked outside nearby. Some of those present jumped over the barriers and the Qatari police at some point pushed back the crowd.
Still, some visitors stayed and waited, hoping for a chance to enter, like Ayman Awad, a geologist who flew to Qatar on Saturday from Sudan.
“I will not surrender,” Awad said. “I hope it doesn’t stay so crowded.”
Many foreign fans are aware of Qatar’s restrictions on freedom of expressionThey were wary of criticizing the host country as they waited. A group of Saudi tourists who expressed their disappointment with the situation to an Associated Press journalist later retracted their quotes for fear of getting into “politics”.
The Al Bidda Park fan zone is planning to hold other major concerts during the tournament. But it has gained new fame after Friday’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol in stadiums: it will be one of the few places outside hotel bars and private residences where fans can grab a drink while partying in this conservative Muslim nation..
On Saturday night, a quick batch of calls to several bars in Doha’s West Bay area, an area full of high-end hotels, found that they were fully booked the night before the tournament as the fan zone was closed.
The real test, however, will start on Sunday, as Ecuador face Qatar in the opening match and the group stage comes close behind – as the crowd arrives.
Follow Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre and www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.
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