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The underground map helping thirsty World Cup fans find alcohol in Qatar

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DOHA, Qatar — The Mulberry Tavern is tucked away inside a five-star hotel off a side road in Qatar’s most exclusive district. Technically, it serves a country whose religion prohibits alcohol, but its menu lists over 100 alcoholic drinks. Its servers hustle $15 draft beers, $23 cocktails and $113 bottles of wine to tables adorned with the flags of World Cup participants. And, with Western music humming and kickoff approaching, it is bracing itself.

It has not been advertised as part of the 2022 World Cup experience, nor have any local pubs. In Qatar, as World Cup organizing chief Nasser Al Khater has said, "alcohol is not part of our culture." And so, in preparing the tournament, FIFA and Qatari organizers have straddled a fraught line between a host nation that frowns upon booze and a sport that guzzles it. They will sell it at Fan Fests but not in stadiums. They will promote Budweiser, an official World Cup sponsor, but not alcohol as a product. Their relative silence has left thousands of incoming visitors unaware that a couple hundred hotel bars and restaurants can satisfy their drinking needs.

Behind the scenes, however, a map maintained by an American fan is doing their work for them.

Ed Ball, a Seattle-based aerospace salesman, initially created his Qatar Alcohol Map as “something useful for myself.” Then he shared it with beer-drinking buds and fellow supporters of U.S. soccer. And over time, it spread. Over several months, it has been viewed over 320,000 times, Ball told Yahoo Sports, and that number is growing by increasing thousands every day. Fans from England and Wales are using it. Fans from Mexico and South America are using it. People working at the tournament in official capacities are using it as well.

None of those officials will promote it, because they remain conscious of their hosts’ sensibilities. The New York Times reported Monday, for example, that Qatar’s royal family had demanded that beer tents outside stadiums be moved to less visible locations. Locals are worried that an influx of intoxicated fans could overrun a very non-intoxicated city.

But inside the Mulberry, and at the other 195 bars, restaurants and clubs on Ball’s list, lines will grow, and alcohol will flow — and nobody knows whether it’ll be enough to serve the roughly 1 million guests that the World Cup is expecting.

A a bar called 'The Irish Pub,' that will be one of the bars showing World Cup 2022 matches on live screens, in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
A bar called The Irish Pub, that will be one of the bars showing World Cup 2022 matches on live screens, in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

From connoisseur to curator

Islam’s disapproval of alcohol and Qatari laws criminalizing public consumption sparked concerns among Western fans that the 2022 World Cup would be a dry one. Qatari law also prohibits the import of alcohol. Grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell it. There is just one solitary distribution hub, the mildly named Qatar Distribution Company (QDC), which requires a permit, Qatari citizenship, employer permission, social status and the braving of long lines.

In other words, it isn’t for foreign fans — so they wondered whether they’d be able to drink at all. Ball, a self-described craft beer “connoisseur,” was one of them. And that’s when he began his research.

He quickly realized that the fears, inflamed in part by incredulous tabloids, were overblown. Qatari authorities grant alcohol licenses to hotels — which, in general, act as safe havens from Qatar’s most conservative laws. They’re where people go to have pre-marital sex and, most prominently, to drink.

Ball, however, couldn’t find an all-encompassing list of them. So, earlier this year, after he and his wife had confirmed their trip to Qatar, he started jotting down some notes. He realized that a Google map — which he uses at work to visualize his network of colleagues and clients — could come in handy.

The one he initially built was very incomplete, with roughly a dozen hotels and a few establishments. Then some fellow members of U.S. soccer’s largest supporters group, the American Outlaws, began chiming in with recommendations.

Those friends shared it with their friends. Twenty daily views became 50, then 100. Ball began emailing hotels, pubs and restaurants with direct questions about their alcohol offerings. He added happy hour notes, contact info and reviews for many of them. He added nearby stadiums and metro stops for convenience.

He estimates that he’s spent more than 100 hours curating it. He turned it into a spreadsheet too. He didn’t aggressively promote it — the Twitter account he made has just 79 followers — and he doesn’t quite know how it circulated internationally. But he now gets messages from people around the world thanking him. He doesn’t know how many of the 320,000 viewers are repeat users, but it’s clear that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of fans will reference it as they descend on Doha this month.

A draft beer at The Mulberry Tavern in Doha, Qatar, will run you about $15. The ice is free. (Photo by Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
A draft beer at The Mulberry Tavern in Doha, Qatar, will run you about $15. The ice is free. (Photo by Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

A complicated clash of cultures

It’s also clear, though, that the Qatar World Cup will be far from a drinker’s paradise. Ball hopes to hop around to several of the bars who’ve been responsive to his outreach, but he’s worried that they could overflow. He’s worried that he’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder with no cell service, rather than sitting back and relaxing and watching soccer.

He also had one question himself as he readied for departure: “Are the prices as bad as everyone's saying they are?”

The answer, in short, is yes. The hotels that house the pubs and eateries are mostly upscale. There’s also a so-called “sin tax” — a 100% tax on alcohol imports — that makes Qatar the most expensive place in the world to buy beer. The prices aren’t uniformly absurd. Wine isn’t $113 everywhere. The Pearl, a manmade island full of luxury, is notoriously and uniquely exorbitant. But the average cost of a beer in Qatar in 2021, according to Expensivity’s World Beer Index, was $11.26.

It’s unclear how expensive booze will be at FIFA-controlled Fan Fests, the biggest of which has a capacity of 40,000 and will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., according to organizers. The official festivals are an attempt to turn a booming-but-often-boring city into a happening one for a month. They will feature live music and other entertainment, in addition to big screens for matches.

At the matches themselves, there will be beer sold on stadium premises, but not inside the bowl of the arena. Concessions in concourses will only sell Budweiser Zero, the official sponsor’s non-alcoholic product. And fans who’ve clearly had too much of the alcoholic kind will reportedly be brought to and held in sobering zones to preempt disturbances.

It is all a complicated clash of cultures and governing bodies. Ball knew that many fans were confused by it. Which is why he created his map, not as a means to skirt laws, but as a resource that would help him — and now many others — indulge “within the confines of legal drinking in Qatar.”