World Cup Runs Dry as Qatar Bans Booze at Stadiums

More than one million fans are expected to travel to Qatar for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 as the so-called “beautiful game’s” biggest stage kicks off this Sunday (Nov. 20). 

But for all the hype and buzz leading up to the event, a giant unexpected buzzkill will greet thirsty travelers when beer sales are banned from the event for the first time in the modern era of World Cup soccer.

Dry as a Desert

Qatar is a conservative, predominantly Muslim country with limited availability to alcohol. In a surprise U-turn just two days before the world’s biggest soccer tournament, organizers have blown the whistle on fun for the fans – announcing that alcoholic beer and other beverages containing alcohol will not be available for purchase in or around any of the eight stadiums hosting the tournament’s 64 matches. 

This comes as a big hit to longtime FIFA World Cup sponsor Budweiser, who has for decades increased both share of mind and wallet by leveraging its involvement with the tournament as the only vendor allowed to sell beer. 

“Following discussions between host country authorities and FIFA, a decision has been made to focus the sale of alcoholic beverages on the FIFA Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, removing sales points of beer from Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium perimeter,” said FIFA in a statement.

Bud Zero, AB-InBev’s non-alcoholic beer, will remain available for sale across all eight stadiums during match play, but that won’t amount to a drop in a bucket of the estimated $75 Million Budweiser spends every four years for the event’s official sponsorship rights. 

A Stunning Upset 

In September, Qatar had said it would permit ticketed fans to buy regular beer at World Cup matches starting three hours before kickoff and for one hour after the final whistle, but not during the match. It is illegal to drink in public in Qatar. Budweiser was allowed to sell beer before and after games within the ticketed perimeter of the eight stadiums. While not an ideal situation compared to past World Cups, the compromise was considered amenable to all parties at the time. 

But now it appears the nation’s authorities have overruled FIFA, soccer’s global governing body and owner of the World Cup, as well as any protests from Budweiser, who has sponsored FIFA’s World Cup for 30 years. 

The reversal on beer sales is the latest change to an evolving alcohol plan that has increased tensions between FIFA executives and Qatari leadership for months. “Alcohol is not part of our culture,” said Qatari World Cup organizing committee CEO Nasser Al Khater, according to The Data Lounge

FIFA has previously had to work with local officials to modify alcohol restrictions to accommodate Budweiser and make its beverage products available. There have been restrictions at past World Cups. But a full-fledged ban is unprecedented.

“Well, this is awkward…” Budweiser said in a since-deleted tweet Friday (Nov. 18). The alcohol company later stated that “some of the planned stadium activations cannot move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.”

Budweiser reportedly pays $75 million to sponsor the FIFA World Cup, according to Sportico, and it is unclear how this still-recent decision by the Qatari government will affect the brewer’s lucrative contract with soccer’s global governing body. 

Total operating costs for the global event are reported to be around $1.7 billion. Revenue from international television, tickets, hospitality and corporate sponsorships were projected to total $4.7 billion. It remains to be seen what the financial hit is from the whiplash ban on alcohol sales, but it is sure to be substantial and may even constitute a breach of contract for FIFA and Budweiser. 

Fan experience

The beer ban in Qatar suggests that FIFA, with just two days to go and after nearly a dozen years of planning, does not have full control over its tournament. The World Cup is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The big money and big politics and controversy surrounding the event have plagued the Middle Eastern nation’s bid every step of the way. 

This push and pull between FIFA and the Qatari government, with the host nation’s rulers coming out on top, has the LGBTQ community worried as well. Homosexuality, like alcoholic drinks, is also banned and illegal in the conservative country. LGBTQ-identifying fans had been assured they would be safe during the tournament, but many are now second-guessing that assurance. 

The ban may also anger Western fans, some of whom see alcohol and partaking in drinking as part of the fan culture surrounding soccer and a key element of supporting their team and country. 

The hordes of international fans all descending on Qatar will still be able to drink at FIFA’s official fan festival and at hotels in and around Doha, which, because they are not technically “public,” can skirt the nation’s no alcohol laws and receive licenses. Still, the lack of quaffable beer during World Cup matches will add a unique element to an already atypical tournament. A map of where to drink made by an American fan has been spreading rapidly on social media. 

FIFA president Gianni Infantino is set to speak at a news conference on Saturday (Nov. 19), where he will address fans and those traveling for the tournament with the latest updates.