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Alcohol u-turn led to peaceful World Cup, says Fifa security chief

qatar 2022 Reuters/Carl Recine
Argentina beat France in the Qatar 2022 final at the end of a smooth-running tournament
  • Hosting 1m football fans in Qatar was challenging 
  • Initial concern about no alcohol sales quickly turned to praise 

Violent clashes between football fans and police, similar to those seen at the Euro 2016 tournament in France, were absent from the Qatar World Cup, and one of the reasons, according to the head of security at organiser Fifa, was the decision to reduce the consumption of alcohol.

With two days to go before the start of Qatar 2022, it was announced that no alcohol would be sold at the eight stadiums hosting the 62 matches.

Consumption was confined to official Fifa fan festival areas and licensed premises across the Muslim country.

“Well, this is awkward,” Fifa sponsor Budweiser tweeted in a post they later deleted, but the football governing body’s head of safety, security and access said the reduced consumption helped in the smooth running of the tournament.

“We have a sponsor, Budweiser, and we also have to fulfil our obligations,” Helmut Spahn told AGBI this month at the Intersec security trade fair in Dubai.

“But to have alcohol not available everywhere, in every supermarket, in every gas station, reduces the risk that you have alcohol-related violence. And we had, in this regard, zero issues,” he said.

It could have all been very different as Spahn said staging the tournament in a small island nation, with a million fans from 32 countries packed together into one common area, meant 2022 was a “challenging one” for organisers.

Qatar 2022 security
Helmut Spahn, head of security at Fifa Qatar 2022, said the tournament turned out to be a “fantastic experience”. Picture: LinkedIn

“This was my fifth World Cup. It was the challenging one because it was the first time in history we played in a very small country, in one city, more or less,” Spahn said.

“We had all the stadiums within 50 or 60 kms, all the fans in one place. Normally teams are travelling between the different host cities, and that’s a little bit easier to manage. So that was our challenge, but it went extremely well.”

Qatar’s eight World Cup stadiums were located within 40 miles of each other, compared to Russia 2018 when some were 1,500km apart, or in 2026 when some will be 5,000km apart and will require fans to travel by plane between the US, Mexico and Canada.

“Service is also one of the most important topics,” Spahn said. “So at the Fifa Fan Festival, for example, we had much more than 1 million spectators, all nationalities together in one spot watching football together. It was a really fantastic experience.”

While the u-turn on alcohol sales in the stadiums made global headlines early on, media complaints quickly subsided and reports by CNN and BBC praised the positive, family-friendly atmosphere.

But Spahn admits that his team were worried about the negative media coverage ahead of kick-off.

“We are all in favour of free media, and we offered every bit of information,” he said. “But we were all a little nervous.

“From one day to the other we all calmed down and we thought, ‘hey, it’s working’. It was well organised. We had ten years to organise it.

Qatar 2022
The u-turn on alcohol sales was ultimately praised for contributing to the positive, family-friendly atmosphere. Picture: Reuters

“And we thought about every single scenario, and we tried to avoid any kind of problems. And, at the end of the tournament, 99 percent of the people spoken to said it was a fantastic experience.”

He added: “Qatar has only one border, the land border to Saudi, and then the border at the airport. So, from a safety and security point of view, it’s easy to control in the country.

“If you play in Europe and you have open borders in the Schengen area, people can travel and, from a security point of view, it’s more tricky.

“But there are other challenges. Critical infrastructure, for example. If you have a problem with an airport in Moscow, you have four others to use. If you have problems with an airport in Germany, you have within 150km five, six, seven other airports. Here, with [Qatar], only one.”

Qatar operated the Hayya digital card for fans travelling to the games, and some VIP tickets also used radio frequency indemnification chips to make access smoother, Spahn said. However, adding facial recognition technology is still a few years away.

“I don’t know if [facial recognition] technology is ready at the moment because you need all the data for a ticket holder,” he said. “But the technology sector is improving fast.”

While the Qatar event was deemed a success, Spahn said there are some minor changes he would implement if he could go back and plan it again.

“Maybe to start to communicating more with the different stakeholders during the operation,” he suggested. “We had three different command and control centres. Combine them into one, with all the stakeholders in one room, could be difficult, but this is something we have to discuss.”

With games spread across three big countries in 2026, he said it will be “a completely different set-up” to what happened in Qatar.

“First of all we have 48 teams, not only 32. We have three different governments. The US is also, from our point of view, complicated in regard to organisational roles,” Spahn said.

“Different security stakeholders, like the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, local police, traffic police, host city police, country police, have responsibilities. 

“My job is to bring them all together, to have a common approach, a mutually agreed concept.”