‘Diversity wins, but the unity fostered by World Cup travel may be lost on Qatar’

Global gathering: Fans with a giant football at Hamad International Airport in Doha (Simon Calder)
Global gathering: Fans with a giant football at Hamad International Airport in Doha (Simon Calder)

Simon Calder, also known as 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 travel issue – and what it means for you.

“They think it’s all sober – it is now.” The front page of Saturday’s Daily Mirror invoked the spirit of the 1966 World Cup final to describe Qatar’s injury-time decision to ban alcohol around stadiums at the 2022 tournament, which begins this weekend in the Gulf state.

The first rule of international travel is to respect the rules and traditions of your host nation. When that state happens to be the host nation of the biggest tournament in football, though, a degree of compromise is appropriate.

In 2010, football’s governing body, Fifa, awarded the World Cup 2022 to Qatar, deciding to compress a competition that has traditionally thrived on a multiplicity of host cities into a tiny thumb of desert on the north side of the Arabian peninsula. Once the initial shock had worn off, the first question from journalists across the sport and travel spectrum was: “Will fans be able to drink?”

That question is more important than it might seem. World Cup tournaments bring humanity together. The action on the pitch is only the start. The global gathering of fans before and after a match, typically with beers in hand, is a joy. It makes spending a small fortune on travel, rooms and tickets every four years feel well worthwhile.

Fifa led us to believe Qatar would temporarily ease its strict rules against consuming alcohol in public. Just last Monday officials launched the “Fan Guide”. It assures supporters they will be able to buy beer (albeit only the insipid American brew known as Budweiser) in the stadium perimeter from three hours before kick-off to an hour after the final whistle.

By Friday that promise had been kicked into touch.

As a conservative Islamic country, Qatar is fully entitled to ban alcohol. Supporters should be able to adjust to Arabian etiquette for a few days or weeks. And as one sanguine fan declared: “If you have to do without a beer, Budweiser is a good one to go without.”

Yet the last-minute beer ban is troubling. In international travel, Qatar accommodates diverse views on alcohol. The state airline, Qatar Airways, is surely one of the least “dry” carriers in the world. The inflight 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).

Taking alcohol into Qatar is illegal. But for outbound or transit passengers Doha’s Hamad International Airport includes a gigantic duty-free shop. (Passing through this month? There’s a “buy two, get one free” promotion on bottles of Stolichnaya vodka.)

Yet the authorities chose to turn off the stadium beer taps even though a big brewer has paid £68m for the right to sell the stuff at matches. It is sobering to consider what other agreements might be overturned.

Same-sex relationships are illegal, and before the tournament a Qatari World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salman, described homosexuality as “damage in 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 non-married friends or couples (including LGBT) staying in the same room.”

But after the alcohol U-turn Qatar’s rulers might yet retract the assurance and impose house rules on gay visitors, including three years in prison for “leading, instigating or seducing a male in any way to commit sodomy”.

The slogan on the Lufthansa Airbus A330 flying the German team to the World Cup commendably declares: “Diversity wins.” It does, in football as in life, but I fear the unity fostered by World Cup travel will be lost on Qatar.