“Diversity wins, but unity fostered by World Cup travel may be lost in Qatar” | Tech US News


World meeting: fans with a giant football at Hamad International Airport in Doha (Simon Calder)

World meeting: fans with a giant football at Hamad International Airport in Doha (Simon Calder)

Simon Calder, aka The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key topic in travel and what it means to you.

“They think he’s all sober, now he is.” Saturday’s cover Daily Mirror invoked the spirit of the 1966 World Cup final to describe Qatar’s injury-time decision to ban alcohol from stadiums at the 2022 tournament, which starts this weekend in the Gulf state.

The first rule of international travel is to respect the rules and traditions of your host country. However, when that state is the host country of soccer’s biggest tournament, a certain degree of compromise is in order.

In 2010, soccer’s governing body, FIFA, awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, deciding to compress a competition that has traditionally thrived in a multiplicity of host cities into a small desert thumb on the northern side of the Arabian Peninsula. Once the initial shock had worn off, the first question from reporters across the sports and travel spectrum was, “Will the fans be able to drink?”

That question is more important than it seems. World Cup tournaments bring humanity together. The action on the pitch is just the beginning. The worldwide gathering of fans before and after a game, usually with beers in hand, is a joy. It makes spending a small fortune on travel, rooms and tickets every four years worth it.

FIFA led us to believe that Qatar would temporarily ease its strict rules against drinking alcohol in public. Last Monday, officials released the “Fan Guide.” It assures fans that they will be able to buy beer (albeit only the bland American beer known as Budweiser) on the perimeter of the stadium from three hours before kick-off until one hour after the final whistle.

By Friday that promise was already in contact.

As a conservative Islamic country, Qatar has every right to ban alcohol. Followers should be able to adapt to Arabic etiquette for a few days or weeks. And as one optimistic fan declared, “If you have to go without a beer, Budweiser is a good one to go without.”

However, the last minute ban on beer is worrying. In international travel, Qatar accommodates diverse opinions on alcohol. The state-owned airline, Qatar Airways, is surely one of the least “dry” airlines in the world. The in-flight breakfast on my Saturday flight to Doha included a choice of beer, wine or Scotch to wash down the inevitable omelette (I opted for tea).

Bringing alcohol into Qatar is illegal. But for departing or transit passengers, Doha’s Hamad International Airport includes a gigantic duty-free shop. (Is it happening this month? There’s a “buy two, get one free” promotion on bottles of Stolichnaya Vodka.)

However, the authorities chose to close the stadium’s beer taps even though a major brewer paid £68m for the right to sell the stuff at matches. It is sobering to consider that other agreements could be overturned.

Same-sex relationships are illegal and, before the tournament, a World Cup ambassador for Qatar, Khalid Salman, described homosexuality as “damage to the mind”. The Foreign Office says: “Host authorities have stated that ‘everyone is welcome’ at the World Cup. They have publicly confirmed that there will be no restrictions on unmarried friends or couples (including LGBT) staying in the same room.”

But after the alcohol change, Qatar’s rulers could still roll back security and impose domestic rules on gay visitors, including three years in prison for “directing, instigating or seducing a male in any way to commit sodomy”.

The slogan on the Lufthansa Airbus A330 carrying the German team to the World Cup reads: “Diversity wins”. It’s like that, in football as in life, but I fear that the unity that World Cup travel fosters is lost in Qatar.


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