The organizers of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar will ban the sale of alcohol at stadiums, according to a statement released on Friday.
It comes just two days before the beginning of the tournament — the first to be hosted in the Middle East and in a majority-Muslim country.
"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 perimeters," a FIFA statement said on Friday.
Non-alcoholic beer will still be available to all fans.
FIFA said organizers of the event were hoping to "ensure that the stadiums and surrounding areas provide an enjoyable, respectful and pleasant experience for all fans."
Beer plan scrapped
The move backtracks on an agreement to sell beer to football fans in specific areas and at specific times, in a country where alcohol is heavily controlled and off-limits to most of the population.
In September, the organizing committee chief executive Naser Al-Khater said that the sale of beer at Qatar's stadiums would be "no different than any other World Cup."
American brewery Budweiser has a sponsorship deal with FIFA worth roughly $75 million (€72 million), giving it the exclusive right to sell beer at the event.
It has been a major sponsor of every World Cup tournament since 1986.
Budweiser released a statement following the announcement, saying the restrictions were "beyond our control."
In Qatar, Budweiser had planned to sell alcohol within the ticketed perimeter of the eight World Cup stadiums for a window spanning three hours before each game until one hour after each game.
"A larger number of fans are attending from across the Middle East and South Asia, where alcohol doesn’t play such a large role in the culture," an inside source told the Reuters news agency shortly before the official announcement.
However, Budweiser will still sell alcoholic beer at the main FIFA Fan Fest in central Doha, the source said. A half pint will cost around $14 (€9).
Exceptions expected for VIPs
Although alcoholic beer will not be sold to general spectators at stadiums, it will reportedly still be available inside VIP suites.
The Associated Press reported that champagne, whiskey and other drinks are also still expected to be available at luxury hospitality venues.
Meanwhile, some observers slammed the last-minute U-turn.
"For many fans, whether they don't drink alcohol or are used to dry stadium policies at home, this is a detail. It won't change their tournament,'' said Ronan Evain, the executive director of the fan group Football Supporters Europe.
"But with 48 hours to go, we've clearly entered a dangerous territory — where 'assurances' don't matter anymore."
zc/jcg (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)