A day before the FIFA World Cup, Qatar faces overcrowding problems

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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Authorities on Saturday night turned away thousands of fans attending a concert celebrating the World Cup starting the next day in Qatar, revealing the challenges Doha faces in trying to handle the crowds in the most compact tournament in FIFA history.

Disappointed fans took being turned down in stride. Outside the venue, Qatari police, security guards and others herded thousands of people with giant foam fingers, megaphones and traffic control flashing wands.

But the overflow concert comes before the rest of the tournament’s expected 1.2 million fans arrive in this tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula..

And with Qatar deciding on Friday to ban the sale of beer in tournament stadiums.fan zones like the one on the ledge hosting the concert will be the only areas associated with FIFA that will serve pints, meaning more fans could end up there.

“We know here goes what the police say,” said a 30-year-old trucker from Mumbai, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. He and his friends had had a rare day off at the port of Hamad to walk 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) to the fan zone before being turned away.

“We are sad to leave because it is too soon,” he added. “There is nothing we can do.”

Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees the World Cup, said in a statement to The Associated Press that it was “absolutely delighted” with the opening of the Fan Zone.

“The event reached its capacity of 40,000 people, … a sign of its success and popularity,” the committee said.

Qatar, home to 3 million people, will see its population increase when the tournament begins.. It has spent more than $200 billion on improvements in this energy-rich country, slightly larger than Jamaica.

That includes a vast new underground metro system that can take fans from the airport to games. It even closed schools for the month and urged residents to work from home.

But AP journalists have seen flashpoints where overwhelming numbers of people can be gathered before the tournament even begins.

In Doha’s Souq Waqif, a major tourist destination, a walkway between outdoor restaurants filled quickly on Friday night. His nearby metro station saw long lines, with some shoving between stretcher bearers and those taking the train.

Saturday night, however, began much quieter since Friday is the mandatory day off for all workers in the country. Fewer people came to the ledge as a huge fireworks display suddenly went off, illuminating Doha’s glittering skyline before astonished passers-by.

However, shortly after 8:00 pm, the crowd packed into the Fan Zone hoping to catch a concert with Lebanese singer Myriam Fares and Colombian singer Maluma. But while hundreds squeezed into a holding pen, thousands more waited outside.

At one exit, the crowd tried to force their way inside, with some onlookers slipping past the guards. At one entrance, a security guard with a megaphone pleaded with the crowd: “For your safety, please come back!”

AP journalists saw policemen on horseback at one point in the fan waiting area, as well as an armored police vehicle parked nearby.

Still, some visitors stayed and waited, hoping for a chance to get in, like Ayman Awad, a geologist who flew to Qatar on Saturday from Sudan.

“I will not give up,” Awad said. “I hope it doesn’t get so crowded.”

Many foreign fans, aware of Qatar’s restrictions on free speech, they were wary of criticizing the host country while they waited. A group of Saudi tourists who expressed their disappointment over the situation to an AP reporter later backed away from their appointments for fear of getting into “politics.”

The Fan Zone at Al Bidda Park also plans other major concerts during the tournament. But it has taken on new prominence after Friday’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol in stadiums: it will be one of the few places outside hotel bars and private residences where fans will be able to have a drink while partying in this conservative Islamic nation..

On Saturday night, a quick series of calls to several bars in Doha’s West Bay, an area filled with luxury hotels, found that they were all fully booked the night before the tournament as the Fan Zone was closed.

However, the real test will begin on Sunday, when Ecuador take on Qatar in the opening match and the group stage follows behind, with the crowd still to come.

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Follow Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre and www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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