$20 beers seems a small price to pay at an oasis of escape in Qatar

The Irish Pub in Doha was loud and crowded on Saturday night. Ronnie Griffin, the 57-year-old proprietor, moved from table to table, shouting greetings to her guests from around the world.

“I hope you have a lovely time,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”

Her visitors were equally grateful for her hospitality. Bars in Qatar are highly regulated, and beer is a little hard to come by. The Irish Pub is hidden away on the 14th floor of a Best Western Plus. It doesn’t have the feel of a speakeasy, exactly, but it does seem like a discovery in more ways than one.

The hotel’s elevator doors open into a dark hallway. Turn one way, and you go to Krossroads Club, with its live music and neon lights. Turn the other, and you run into a man sitting behind a computer, asking to see your passport, so that you might gain entry to an unlikely pocket of Ireland.

Ronnie’s home country did not qualify for the World Cup, but every table in her bar was occupied with supporters from a dozen other nations, decked out in jerseys, belting out fight songs. After weeks of building rancor leading up to the most controversial World Cup in modern memory, there was a palpable sense of relief in the smoky room, as though everyone had been granted belated but welcome permission to have fun.

A bartender prepares a drink in a restaurant in the 22-deck cruise ship MSC World Europa, a floating hotel docked at Doha Port, one of the few places permitted to sell alcohol in the World Cup host city. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

The loudest group was from Denmark, jubilant in red in the middle of the place. There were two Dutch fans in their distinctive orange. A bundle of Welsh boys sat in a corner in their Spirit of ’58 bucket hats. Two Americans, husband and wife, watched the scene from a place along the wall, her long braid tied together with a US flag.

A pint of Guinness costs 60 Qatari riyals, or about $20 Cdn. Ronnie, who’s originally from Cork, claims to pour the best one in Qatar. The cost didn’t deter anyone. When thirsty people find a cold drink in Doha, they will pay whatever it costs. About halfway through the night, the Carlsberg taps ran dry. The Heineken kept flowing.

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A happy troupe of Belgians ordered round after round. One of them, a bearded, bespectacled man named Olivier, was one of the fans that Qatar had paid to come here, in exchange for favorable posts on social media. Olivier was chosen because of a picture of him at a Belgium game that went viral, his entire face painted red, devil horns on top of his shaved head. He looked like someone who could be committed to a cause.

When word leaked about the pay-for-posts system and yet more unfavorable press followed, the Qataris canceled the per diem the comped fans were supposed to receive. Olivier didn’t seem bothered. The flight, accommodation, and match tickets felt like gift enough. He could float $20 for a beer.

He raised a toast with some Canadian visitors — rivals on the field on Nov. 23, but new and fast friends in the happy, neutral turf of Ronnie’s bar. Asked whether he’d wear his devil makeup to the game, Olivier shook his head.

“No, it’s not allowed,” he said. The Qataris have banned full face paint, presumably in service of the facial-recognition software employed by the 22,000 security cameras that have been installed at the eight World Cup stadiums.

But for one night, at least, there was an escape from the grimmer realities of this bewildering tournament.

Right on time like a train, a DJ started playing. His first selection was John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. It was a good choice. The entire bar raised their glasses and started roaring about rivers and mountains they’ve never seen, an unlikely band of soccer’s pilgrims having found joy and beer together in Doha, finally feeling as though they belonged.

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