Flag-draped fans have continued to pour into Qatar in advance of the Middle East’s first World Cup, even as organisers banned the sale of beer at stadiums – a last-minute decision that appeared to be largely welcomed by the country’s residents and shrugged off by some visitors.
The Gulf country, home to some three million people, expected another 1.2 million fans to fly in for the tournament that begins on Sunday.
After Friday prayers, the talk of the capital, Doha, became the sudden ruling by the government to halt all beer sales at stadiums.
Many welcomed the decision in the country, where beers, wine and liquor are sold at discrete hotel bars.
Abdullah, an Egyptian resident of Qatar, said he would feel more comfortable attending games knowing that beer would not be available in the stadiums.
“I am happy to hear this news. It’s not like alcohol is not sold in Qatar. People have to respect Muslim culture and get on with the tournament. I’ll feel much better about taking my family to the stadium now. We’re supporting Brazil,” he told Al Jazeera.
Federico Ferraz, a fan group organiser from Portugal, said the timing of the decision to ban alcohol at the stadiums was made too late.
“I think FIFA and Qatar left it very late to announce this decision … Fans are going to feel hard done by. They waited till the last minute, for everyone to buy tickets, book hotels and then they announced it. Were they afraid that fans wouldn’t have come here if they had banned alcohol earlier?”
Alcohol will still be served in hotels, luxury suites, private homes and at the FIFA Fan Festival site during the tournament.
In Doha’s Souq Waqif market, 35-year-old Pablo Zambrano of Ecuador shrugged off the news of the beer ban before his country’s opening night match against Qatar on Sunday.
He was staying with his mother, who lives in Qatar, and said the fridge already is stocked with beer, which foreigners can buy legally in selected depots.
“There’s things about the alcohol and the women with the dress codes,” Zambrano told the Associated Press news agency, referring to the country’s customs. “It’s different. But it’s going to be good.”
Zambrano was one of a growing number of fans sightseeing in the traditional market and along the Corniche, a seaside boulevard with views of Doha’s glittering skyline.
Just down the street, 24-year-old vegetable seller Ajmal Pial from Khulna, Bangladesh, took in the breeze with the city’s skyscrapers stretched out behind him across the waters of the Persian Gulf.
But instead of his nation’s green and red disc flag, Pial waved Brazil’s over his head as his friend took pictures of him. He and his friends support Argentina and Brazil, two of the tournament favourites.
For Pial and others, the World Cup represents a pinnacle of work in Qatar and likely a final hurrah before heading home as jobs potentially slow.
Labour conditions in Qatar, like many of the Gulf Arab states, have been criticised for exploiting the low-paid workers who built the former pearling port into a desert metropolis.
Qatar has overhauled its labour laws, but activists have asked for more to be done. There are no guarantees for freedom of speech in the country, but Pial said he felt genuinely happy at the chance to see the tournament.
His friend, 32-year-old Shobuz Sardar, also from Khulna, Bangladesh, said part of that excitement came from the fact that it is only the second time that an Asian country hosts the World Cup, 20 years after Japan and South Korea co-hosted the tournament.
He also said the tournament provided a rare opportunity to celebrate.
“You also know that there are too many people all here for work, for jobs,” Sardar said. “They don’t have any option for having fun. This World Cup makes them have fun.”