A couple of days ago I noted that the Asian Cup finals, being held in Doha, Qatar, had become something of an embarrassment for the hosts due to the vast open spaces inside the stadiums where ticket holding fans ought to have been sitting.
But as yesterdays' Japan/Australia final (1-0 for the Japanese) demonstrated, they've got much bigger problems.
Media reports are scarce at the moment - possibly because Qatar isn't big on all that "Free Press" stuff - but thanks to numerous eyewitnesses and the miracle of YouTube, we're able to piece together some of the details of what can only be described as a PR disaster.
[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlQ0YwkTdLA"]YouTube - Asian Cup Finals - Qatar 2011 - Wouldn't let people in....[/ame]
It seems that the Qataris have some quaint local customs, among them being that when the Royal Family enters a venue the gates to same are immediately shut, locked and patrolled by heavily armed men.
In truth, I have no way of knowing whether this is SOP or if the Emir and his minions are a a bit extra jumpy these days.
Which isn't that big a deal I suppose, except when they arrive 30 minutes before the kickoff of a soccer final and there are an estimated 8-10,000 ticket holders still milling around outside.
[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBekTrWUxJw"]YouTube - Qatar asian cup final, police not letting ticket holding fans in.4[/ame]
And when many of those fans have flown in for the game from - to pick a couple of places entirely at random - Japan and Australia, they get a bit testy about being told that the very expensive ticket they're holding is now nothing more than a fancy bookmark.
The situation was further aggravated by the charming local custom of making women use a separate entrance from the men which meant that when the gates were padlocked many parties found themselves on opposite sides of the fence. In several cases small children were locked into the venue while their parents were locked out, and vice-versa.
Reportedly the security forces found this particularly amusing and were seen having a good laugh about it.
Or at least until a couple of women became frantic and insisted that they be allowed to get to their children: they were beaten with truncheons for their disrespect for authority and, probably, for being women in the first place.
Of course, as usually happens in tightly controlled societies where dissent is virtually unknown, the security forces quickly overreacted to the situation and a horde of fully suited-up riot police, some with dogs, others on horseback, appeared on the scene to make certain that no further ticketholding customers got into the match.
And they really weren't ready for Aussies with cameras and, of course, attitudes:
[ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0yVbyYNFNs"]YouTube - Qatar asian cup final, police not letting ticket holding fans in.[/ame]
I'm indebted to BigSoccer loyalist "dsnipes1" for this link to AN ESPN COMMENT THREAD which someone ought to send to FIFA this morning:
This one, from "Nina" is typical:
'The gates were not closed 5 minutes after kick-off, it was 35 minutes BEFORE. I, along with I estimate 8000 people who had valid tickets, were not allowed to enter. Many had traveled from overseas. Many others had driven ten hours or more from Saudi Arabia.
Males and females were of course separated and some kids went inside while their family members were locked outside. No explanation was offered and we were laughed at by the people in charge, the riot police were witnessed hitting at least one woman badly. Parking was terrible and many people had to walk for a long time to get to the stadium.'
Furthermore, apparently the Qataris were worried that all those empty seats made for terrible photos so they passed out large quantities of tickets to local workers and their families and, reportedly, also bussed in loads of schoolchildren to fill up the stadium.
Told they could "sit anywhere" they of course immediately filled up the most expensive seats, causing some angry confrontations when the people who actually had tickets for those seats showed up.
In the end they had thousands of people who were allowed in free sitting in the seats of the people who paid to attend and who the police were keeping out.
And the kicker:
At the end of the game they of course held the obligatory closing ceremony, accompanied by a fireworks display.
The authorities refused to unlock the gates and allow anyone to leave until it was over, an hour after the match had concluded.
Qatar's response this morning? Pretty much what you'd expect:
It's all lies. It never happened. People were not locked out of the stadium. The gates were left open until five minutes after kickoff. There was a small number of ticketless fans who were outside complaining but that's it. Nobody was forced to stay for the closing ceremony. The whole thing is simply a rumor being spread by Qatar haters.
Now obviously FIFA is going to say that it's all OK. Yes, there were "a few problems" but, after all, they've got 12 years to straighten them out. No big deal.
But this wasn't simply a case of bad organization or poorly trained ushers.
Rather, it is a systemic problem with a host country that treats outsiders like cattle, expects everyone to meekly accept being massively inconvenienced - even ripped off - due to the perks afforded to their royals, degrades women and has no experience with or tolerance for a crowd that doesn't quickly obey the police.
Just what Seppy needed this week. I guess he'll just have to pass out some more money.
UPDATE: Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, it appears that Qatar owns them some journalists.