World

Qatar battles overcrowding at fan zone the day before FIFA World Cup kicks off

Authorities turned away thousands of fans on Saturday night from a concert celebrating the World Cup beginning the next day in Qatar, revealing the challenges ahead for Doha as it tries to manage crowds in FIFA's most compact tournament ever.

Authorities turned away thousands from packed concert in capital Doha

In this image from video, Qatari police try to control a crowd at a FIFA fan zone in the capital, Doha, on Saturday. (Srdjan Nedeljkovic/The Associated Press)

Authorities turned away thousands of fans on Saturday night from a concert celebrating the World Cup beginning the next day in Qatar, revealing the challenges ahead for Doha as it tries to manage crowds in FIFA's most compact tournament ever.

Disappointed fans took being turned away largely in stride. Outside the venue, Qatari police, security guards and others guided the thousands away with giant foam fingers, bullhorns and blinking traffic control wands.

But the overflowing concert comes before the rest of the 1.2 million fans expected at the soccer tournament arrive in this tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula.

And with Qatar deciding only Friday to ban beer sales from tournament stadiums, fan zones like the one on the seaside corniche hosting the concert will be the only FIFA-associated area serving pints — meaning more fans could wind up there.

"We know that what the police say here goes," said a 30-year-old trucker from Mumbai, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. He and his friends had got a rare day off from Hamad Port to walk six kilometres to the fan zone before being turned away.

Police stand by on horseback as other security officials try to control a crowd at a FIFA fan zone on Saturday. (Srdjan Nedeljkovic/The Associated Press)

"We're sad to leave because it's too early," he said. "There's nothing we can do."

Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees the World Cup, did not immediately respond to questions about the fan zone turning away crowds Saturday night.

Qatar, home to three million people, will see its population swell as the tournament begins. It has spent more than $200 billion US for improvements across this energy-rich country slightly larger than Jamaica.

That includes a vast new underground metro system that can whisk fans from the airport to matches. It has even closed schools for the month and urged residents to work from home.

A large crowd is seen at the FIFA fan zone at Doha's Al Bidda Park on Saturday. (Molly Darlington/Reuters)

But Associated Press journalists have seen pinch points where an overwhelming number of people can be bunched together even before the tournament begins.

In Doha's Souq Waqif, a major tourist destination, a walkway between outdoor restaurants quickly filled shoulder to shoulder on Friday night. Its nearby metro station saw long lines, with some people pushing and shoving between orderlies and those taking the train.

Saturday night, however, started much smoother; Friday is the mandatory day off for all workers in the country. Fewer people strolled the corniche as a massive fireworks show suddenly went off, illuminating Doha's glittering skyline to awed passersby.

Fans watch a drone display and fireworks over Doha on Saturday. (Jon Gambrell/The Associated Press)

Just after 8 p.m., however, crowds thronged the fan zone, hoping to attend a concert featuring Lebanese singer Myriam Fares and Colombian singer Maluma. As hundreds squeezed inside a holding pen, thousands more waited outside the venue.

At one exit, the crowd tried to argue its way inside, with a few spectators slipping past guards. At an entrance, one security guard with a bullhorn pleaded with the crowd: "For your safety, please go back!"

Still, some stayed and waited, hoping for a chance to get in, like Ayman Awad, a geologist who flew to Qatar on Saturday from Sudan.

Fans are seen during a concert in Al Bidda Park on Saturday. (Molly Darlington/Reuters)

"I won't give up," Awad said. "I hope it doesn't stay this crowded."

Many foreign fans, aware of Qatar's restrictions on free speech, were wary of criticizing the host country as they waited. A group of Saudi tourists who expressed disappointment at the situation to an AP journalist later retracted their quotes for fear of wading into "politics."

The fan zone at Al Bidda Park has plans other major concerts during the tournament. But it has taken on new prominence after Friday's decision to ban alcohol sales at stadiums: It will be one of the few places outside of hotel bars and private residences where fans can have a drink while partying in this conservative Islamic nation.

PHOTOS | Soccer fans enjoy beer at fan zone: 

On Saturday night, a quick set of calls to several bars in Doha's West Bay, an area full of high-end hotels, found that all were fully booked the night before the tournament as the fan zone was shut.

Yet the real test will begin on Sunday, as Ecuador faces Qatar in the opening match and the group stage follows behind — with the crowds to come.

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