Day before the FIFA World Cup, Qatar faces overcrowding problems

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Authorities turned away thousands of fans Saturday night from a concert celebrating the World Cup that started the next day in Qatar, revealing the challenges Doha faces as it tries to manage crowds in the most compact FIFA tournament.

Frustrated fans trudged away. Outside the venue, Qatari police, security guards and others ushered the thousands away with giant foam fingers, bullhorns and flashing traffic control sticks.

But the packed concert comes before the remaining 1.2 million fans expected at the tournament arrive in the tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula.

And with Qatar only deciding on Friday to ban beer sales from the tournament’s stadiums, fan zones like the one in the cornice hosting the concert will be the only FIFA-related area to serve pints – meaning more fans they could end up there.

“We know what the police are saying here is true,” said a 30-year-old trucker from Mumbai, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. He and his friends had a rare permit from Hamad port to walk 6 kilometers (3.7 mi) to the fan zone before being turned away.

“We are sorry to leave because it is too early,” he added. “There’s nothing we can do.”

In this video image, Qatari police stand on horseback as other security officials try to control a crowd in a FIFA fan zone ahead of the World Cup in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Authorities turned away thousands of fans Saturday night from a concert to celebrate the World Cup starting the next day in Qatar, revealing the challenges Doha faces as it tries to manage crowds at FIFA’s most compact tournament. (AP Photo/Srdjan Nedeljkovic)

Qatar’s Supreme Commission for Tradition and Heritage, which oversees the World Cup, said in a statement to The Associated Press that it was “absolutely pleased” with the opening of the fan zone.

“The event reached 40,000 people, … a sign of its success and popularity,” the commission said.

Qatar, home to 3 million people, will see its population grow as the tournament begins. It has spent more than $200 billion on improvements in this energy-rich country slightly larger than Jamaica.

This includes a massive new underground metro system that can transport fans from the airport to the games. It even closed schools for the month and urged residents to work from home.

But AP reporters have seen places where overwhelming numbers of people can gather even before the tournament begins.

In Doha’s Souq Waqif, a major tourist destination, a corridor between open-air restaurants quickly filled shoulder to shoulder on Friday night. The nearby metro station saw long queues, with some pushing and shoving between conductors and those taking the train.

Fans crowd the site of the FIFA Fan Festival in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Authorities turned away thousands of fans Saturday night from a concert to celebrate the World Cup starting the next day in Qatar, showing the challenges that Doha has ahead of it.  trying to manage the crowds in the most compact FIFA tournament ever.  (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
Fans crowd the site of the FIFA Fan Festival in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Authorities turned away thousands of fans Saturday night from a concert to celebrate the World Cup starting the next day in Qatar, showing the challenges that Doha has ahead of it. trying to manage the crowds in the most compact FIFA tournament ever. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Saturday night, however, started much more smoothly as Friday is the mandatory holiday for all workers in the country. Fewer people stole the cornice as a massive fireworks show suddenly erupted, lighting up Doha’s glittering skyline to awe-struck onlookers.

Shortly after 8pm, however, crowds flocked to the Fan Zone, hoping to catch a concert by Lebanese singer Myriam Fares and Colombian singer Maluma. But as hundreds crammed into a pen, thousands more waited outside the venue.

At one exit, the crowd tried to argue their way inside, with some spectators pushing past the guards. At one entrance, a bull-headed guard implored the crowd: “For your safety, please return!”

AP reporters saw police on horseback at one point in the fan holding area, as well as an armored police vehicle parked outside nearby. Some attendees jumped over barriers and Qatari police at one point held back the crowd.

But some visitors stayed and waited, hoping for a chance to get in, like Ayman Awad, a geologist who flew into Qatar on Saturday from Sudan.

“I will not give up,” Awad said. “I hope it doesn’t stay so crowded.”

Many foreign fans, aware of Qatar’s restrictions on free speech, were wary of criticizing the host nation as they waited. A group of Saudi tourists who expressed their frustration over the situation to an AP reporter later retracted their quotes for fear of getting into “politics.”

The Fan Zone at Al Bidda Park also plans other big concerts during the tournament. But it has taken on new prominence after Friday’s decision to ban alcohol sales at stadiums: It will be one of the few places outside of hotel bars and private homes where fans can have a drink while partying in the conservative Islamic nation. .

On Saturday night, a quick series of calls to several bars in Doha’s West Bay, an area lined with high-end hotels, found that all were fully booked the night before the tournament, as the Fan Zone was closed.

However, the real test will begin on Sunday as Ecuador face Qatar in the opening match and the group stage follows – with the world coming.

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