DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Let’s be clear: They definitely wanted beer.
So a group of guys from Nottinghamshire, England – veterans of boozy soccer matches back home — fumed when they discovered no beer would be sold until halftime of the Brazil-Croatia game at the main Doha fan zone, one of the few places where World Cup fans can have alcohol.
But while outrage was a given, there was also cultural introspection.
“It’s weird!” roared Mark Walker, a giant of a rugby player, though he first used a far riper adjective.
One of his friends suggested the absence of alcohol made it possible for local women and children to attend the matches.
“You’re watching the match, you have a beer. It’s what you do,” Walker insisted.
Another friend, James Vernon, countered, “At home you have people who are only there to drink and fight. This way it’s only people who are really interested in the game.”
Qatar has presented its World Cup – the first ever in an Arab, Muslim nation – as a chance for different cultures to come side by side and get along. And few cultures are further apart than one where alcohol is largely forbidden and one where drinking a cold one at a match is sacred.
Everyone has adjusted, not that they had a choice. Fans who want to can pre-game at a hotel bar, though drinks are expensive. Others are happy with the alcohol-free experience, saying the absence of rowdy, drunken fans at the stadium or in the streets makes the World Cup safer and easier to enjoy — with less harassment of women.
Alcohol sales are heavily restricted in Qatar, allowed only at a few hotel bars and restaurants meant for foreigners. For the World Cup, Qatar has set up fan zones around Doha where fans can watch the games on massive screens, and where beer is served. But even there, the beer is sold in separate concession stands away from other food and drink, and not before half-time of each game. In a last-minute decision just before the tournament started, Qatar banned beer sales at stadiums.
Souq Waqif, Doha’s renovated historic market, has emerged as the World Cup’s alcohol-free party center. A pedestrian area of small alleys lined with shops and restaurants — almost none of which serve alcohol — it’s one of the few public spaces in the Qatari capital, a city of highways, skyscrapers and residential compounds.
Every night, tens of thousands crowd into it, and fans course through, singing and waving flags.
“There’s no alcohol here but it’s still a great time,” said Sarah Moore, an England fan.
Lana Halaseh, a Jordanian woman who brought her three kids to the World Cup, said the atmosphere is family friendly.
“The fact that there’s no alcohol maybe makes it smoother for the kids. There won’t be any problems,” she said.
The cultural exchange is firmly on Qatar’s terms.
Its approach of isolating alcohol at the World Cup mirrors the way Qatar has dealt with its furious expansion the past decades: It compartmentalizes society to keep each sector in its place and smooths rough edges with its massive petrodollar wealth.
It’s visible in Doha’s physical layout, where the small Qatari population of around 300,000 lives in compounds of large villas, separate from the professional foreign population in newly built neighborhoods. The around 2 million migrant workers, largely from South Asia, Africa and the Philippines, live mainly out of sight on the outskirts of the city in company housing and labor camps, where rights groups have long pressed for better conditions.
Even with alcohol cordoned off, Qataris have had a little culture shock of their own.
Mohammed Al-Kuwari, a 28-year-old Qatari engineer, said the strangest thing was smelling beer at the fan zones. “You never smell beer in Qatar in public,” he said with a laugh. “It’s impossible, it can never happen.”
He said he was grateful he could bring his wife and children to the stadium without drunken rowdiness.
“Why do you need beer during the game, anyway?” said his friend, Abdullah Laangawi, at Lusail Stadium for the Argentina-Netherlands match. “You’re here for the sports. If you need to drink, do it before at a bar.”
That’s heresy for some international fans.
“It’s a big problem – for freedom! We need freedom! It’s a lack of respect for football,” Mauro Rama, an Argentinian, said – joking-not-joking – at Lusail Stadium. He had just bought a Pepsi from the concession stand. He was having nothing to do with the alcohol-free Budweiser Zero on offer.
“We need beer to relax. There’s a lot of tension at these games,” said his friend, Matias Falcone.
At the fan zone, before the start of the Brazil-Croatia game, a few people lingered around the still unopened beer concession stand, wrestling with the reality that they had half a game to wait before they could reach the illuminated row of more than 50 red refrigerators stocked with Budweiser.
A group of 10 cousins from India who had come to Doha together for the World Cup planned to have beer at the fan zone during the day’s first match before heading to the stadium for the second.
They milled around the unopened concession stand, going through the stages of beerlessness. First, denial – “This can’t be right, there must be somewhere else that sells now,” one said. Then, grief. Finally, empathy.
The alcohol restrictions do give a more family atmosphere, they conceded.
“You realize that the traditional way of enjoying the game doesn’t have to be the only way,” said Dileep Nayathil, an IT worker from Bangalore.
AP journalists Helena Alves and Lujain Jo in Doha contributed to this report.