DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Authorities turned thousands of fans away from a concert to celebrate the World Cup kicking off the next day in Qatar on Saturday night, revealing the challenges Doha faces as it attempts to contain crowds in FIFA’s most compact tournament ever.
Disappointed fans were largely turned away. Outside the venue, Qatari police, guards and others led the thousands away with giant foam fingers, megaphones and flashing traffic controllers.
But the packed concert comes before the rest of the 1.2 million fans expected to attend the tournament arrive in this small country on the Arabian Peninsula.
And with Qatar deciding only Friday to ban the sale of beer in tournament stadiums, fan zones like the one on the corniche where the concert is being held will be the only FIFA-associated area serving pints – meaning more fans could end up there .
“We know that what the police say here is true,” said a 30-year-old truck driver from Mumbai, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. He and his friends had been given a rare day off from Hamad Port to walk 6 kilometers (3.7 mi) to the fan zone before being rejected.
“We are sad to leave because it is too early,” he added. “We can’t do anything.”
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees the World Cup, said in a statement to The Associated Press that it was “absolutely delighted” with the opening of the Fan Zone.
“The event reached its capacity of 40,000 people, … a sign of its success and popularity,” the committee said.
Home to 3 million people, Qatar will see its population grow as the tournament begins. It has spent more than $200 billion on improvements in this energy-rich country that is slightly larger than Jamaica.
That includes a massive new underground subway system that can take fans from the airport to games. It even closed schools for the month and urged residents to work from home.
But AP journalists have seen bottlenecks where an overwhelming number of people can gather even before the tournament begins.
In Doha’s Souq Waqif, a major tourist destination, a walkway between open-air restaurants quickly filled shoulder to shoulder on Friday night. The nearby subway station saw long queues, with some pushing and shoving between paramedics and those taking the train.
Saturday night started much more smoothly, however, as Friday is the mandatory day off for all workers in the country. Fewer people were walking down the coastal road when a massive fireworks display suddenly went off, illuminating Doha’s glittering skyline for passers-by.
Just after 8pm, however, the crowd crowded into the Fan Zone, hoping to catch a concert with Lebanese singer Myriam Fares and Colombian singer Maluma. But as hundreds squeezed into a waiting room, thousands more waited outside the room.
At one exit, the crowd tried to force its way in, with a few onlookers slipping past guards. At one entrance, a guard using a megaphone implored the crowd: “For your safety, please go back!”
AP journalists saw police on horseback at one point in the area where the ventilators were held, as well as an armored police vehicle parked nearby. Some attendees jumped barriers and Qatar police at one point held back the crowd.
Still, some visitors waited, hoping for a chance to get in, such as Ayman Awad, a geologist who flew to Qatar from Sudan on Saturday.
“I’m not giving up,” Awad said. “I hope it doesn’t stay that busy.”
Many foreign fans, aware of Qatar’s restrictions on free speech, 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 retracted their quotes for fear of getting involved in “politics”.
The Fan Zone in Al Bidda Park also schedules other major concerts during the tournament. But it has gained new prominence following Friday’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol in stadiums: it will become one of the few places outside of hotel bars and private homes where fans can enjoy a drink while partying in this conservative Muslim country.
On Saturday night, a quick series of calls to several bars in Doha’s West Bay, an area full of luxury hotels, found that they were all fully booked the night before the tournament as the Fan Zone was closed.
But the real test begins on Sunday, as Ecuador takes on Qatar in the opening match and the group stage follows – with the crowd on their way.
Follow Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre and www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.