Qatar has barred the sale of beer in fan zones at World Cup stadiums in an abrupt U-turn on alcohol policy just 48 hours before the tournament begins.
The Gulf state restricts the sale of alcohol to high-end hotels but agreed to allow the sale of Budweiser — one of the World Cup’s biggest sponsors — in designated areas outside the eight stadiums hosting games.
However, Fifa said on Friday that beer sales points would now be removed from stadium perimeters “following discussions between host country authorities and Fifa”.
“Host country authorities and Fifa will continue to ensure that the stadiums and surrounding areas provide an enjoyable, respectful and pleasant experience for all fans,” Fifa said in a statement.
According to people briefed on the organisers’ thinking, there was a last-minute change of heart following concerns that Qataris would feel uncomfortable in places where people were drinking for up to three hours before matches.
Alcoholic drinks will now only be available in hospitality suites at stadiums and inside designated areas around Doha, such as the Fifa Fan Festival, where beer costs almost £12 a cup. Alcohol-free beer will still be available at stadiums.
“I think the feeling and feedback they got was that stadiums will be for everyone so they want it to be a friendly atmosphere for those who want to drink and those who don’t,” said one of the people.
The move is embarrassing for Fifa, which has had a sponsorship deal with Budweiser for 30 years. An announcement on the policy shift is expected later on Friday.
Budweiser responded to the ban in a since deleted tweet that said: ‘Well, this is awkward . . . ’.
Budweiser owner AB InBev said: “As partners of Fifa for over three decades, we look forward to World Cup campaigns to celebrate football with our consumers. Some of the planned stadium activations cannot move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.”
Fifa said: “The tournament organisers appreciate InBev’s understanding and continuous support.”
Alcohol is one of a number of thorny issues that organisers have grappled with since the tournament was awarded to Qatar in 2010. It is illegal to drink in public. The New York Times reported last week that Budweiser had already been told to move beer tents to less visible locations outside stadiums.
The potential disruption caused by drunk fans is just one of the worries around policing one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Qatar is relying on a multinational force, including Pakistani soldiers and Turkish anti-riot police, to manage the hundreds of thousands of people expected in Doha for the month-long tournament.