World Cup fans ready to celebrate despite the beer ban in the stadium

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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Flag-draped fans flocked to Qatar on Friday ahead of the inaugural Middle East World Cup when organizers banned the sale of beer in stadiums — a last-minute decision that stunned FIFA sponsor Budweiser, but by FIFA was largely welcomed by the country’s conservative Muslims and was shrugged off by some visitors.

The small, high-energy country of about 3 million people and roughly the size of Jamaica expects another 1.2 million fans to fly in for the tournament that begins Sunday.

After Friday prayers, the Doha talk turned into the government’s sudden order to halt all beer sales in stadiums.

Many welcomed the decision in this conservative emirate, which follows the same strict Wahhabi Islam as neighboring Saudi Arabia – although it is allowed to sell beer, wine and spirits in discreet hotel bars in the country. The country’s roughly 300,000 citizens have already criticized the Western excesses of some celebrations and have vehemently rejected criticism of their views on LGBTQ rights.

“The only reason I came to this country is so I can enjoy and enjoy the facilities and advantage of living in a modern economy but with an Islamic heritage,” said Mohammad Ali, a 50-year-old doctor Sheffield. England who lives in Qatar. “I don’t want that lifestyle to be compromised.”

“I wouldn’t want my kids and family to enjoy my downtime and be faced with a drunk — I won’t say a hooligan — but with drunk and disordered fans,” he added.

Alcohol will continue to be served in hotels, luxury suites and private homes throughout the tournament. Budweiser continued its work, transforming a luxury hotel into a huge themed bar. It won’t be cheap: a standard bottle of beer costs just over $15.

At Doha’s Souq Waqif market, Ecuador’s Pablo Zambrano, 35, shrugged off the news of the beer ban ahead of his country’s opening game against Qatar on Sunday. He lives with his mother, who lives here, and said the fridge was already stocked with beer that foreigners could legally buy from select depots.

“There are things about the alcohol and the women with the dress codes,” Zambrano said, referring to the country’s conservative customs. “It’s different. But it’ll be fine.”

Zambrano was among a growing number of fans touring the traditional market and along the Corniche, a seafront boulevard overlooking Doha’s glittering skyline.

Just down the street, 24-year-old vegetable vendor Ajmal Pial of Khulna, Bangladesh, breathed in the breeze as the city’s skyscrapers stretched out behind him across the waters of the Persian Gulf.

But instead of his country’s green and red disc flag, Pial waved Brazil’s flag above his head as his friend snapped photos of him. He and his friends support Argentina and Brazil, two of the tournament favourites.

For Pial and others, the World Cup represents a highlight of work in Qatar and likely one last hooray before heading home as jobs dwindle. Working conditions in Qatar, like many Gulf Arab countries, have been criticized for exploiting the low-paid workers who have transformed this former pearl port into a desert metropolis.

Qatar has revised its labor laws, but activists have called for more to be done. There are no guarantees on freedom of expression in Qatar but Pial said he felt really lucky to have the chance to see the tournament.

His friend, 32-year-old Shobuz Sardar, also from Khulna, Bangladesh, said part of that excitement stems from the fact that it is only the second time an Asian country has hosted the World Cup, 20 years after Japan and South Korea organized the tournament together.

He also hinted at the conditions he and other Asian workers may face in Qatar.

“They also know that there are too many people here for work, for jobs,” Sardar said. “You have no way of having fun. They are enjoying this World Cup.”

Workers from Middle Eastern and Asian nations mingled with fans who marched up and down the Corniche. Above government buildings and electronic displays, Qatar’s deep purple-and-white nine-pointed flag seemed to be waving almost everywhere.

For Qatar, who almost reached the opening game after a year-long boycott by four Arab nations over a political row, shows they could pull through. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit Qatar during the tournament, demonstrating the close relationship America shares with a nation that deploys about 8,000 of its troops at its massive Al-Udeid airbase.

Crowds gathered around the clock on the Corniche as the sun went down and the call to prayer was heard, counting down to the opening game.

Qatari supporters marched and chanted, waving a banner with the face of its ruling Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The same image of Sheikh Tamim with the Arabic inscription “Tamim the Glory” was seen all over Doha during the boycott.

Tarek Mujahid, a 37-year-old from Alexandria, Egypt, praised Qatar for being the first Arab nation to host the World Cup.

“I’m very, very, very, very happy – No. 1 because it’s an Arab country,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Nebi Qena and Lujain Jo contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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