DOHA: Morocco fans desperate to attend their country's World Cup match against Spain on Wednesday (Dec 6) tried to breach a cordon around the stadium, prompting riot police to push them back in one of the toughest tests yet of Qatari security arrangements.
Scuffles continued between police and fans outside the ground and a police officer fell from a horse, a Reuters journalist there said, with the stadium full to its capacity of more than 44,000 spectators.
Many Moroccan fans had been seeking scarce tickets for the knockout game against 2010 champions Spain, hoping to see their team advance to its first quarter-final, with some flying in hours before the match.
The last Arab and African side left in World Cup, Morocco has been willed on by some of the most impassioned fans at the tournament.
But Morocco's matches have also been testing for organisers. There was pushing and shoving outside the stadium as ticketless fans gathered ahead of its Dec 1 defeat of Canada, with some trying to climb the fence.
Ahead of Tuesday's kickoff, security appeared tighter than at other games, with rows of riot police deployed on the ground and on horseback as fans walked towards the stadium.
Marshals at the stadium perimeter shouted "show your tickets please" at approaching fans and guards checked for tickets before letting them through.
A crowd of Moroccan fans without tickets waited beyond the security cordon. "We hope to get in," said one man, who declined to give his name.
Some tried to push their way through the edge of the cordon, squeezing between police and a fence.
There was screaming and pushing as more fans gathered and police on horseback advanced towards fans trying to get in.
“Brothers, you are wasting your time. There is no entrance here,” a marshal screamed into a bullhorn as more and more fans gathered.
Reuters contacted the committee responsible for World Cup security at the Qatari ministry of interior for comment but there was no response.
As the match kicked off, many fans outside the stadium began watching on their mobile phones as a crowd of many hundreds of people milled about, many still asking for tickets.
Organisers had set up a large screen outside the stadium for fans who could not get tickets and many had gathered there to watch after last-ditch efforts to secure entry rather than go back to homes or hotel rooms.
"The stadium is very full of people and some still could not get in until now. We preferred to come here to see the match and we are hoping for victory. It is hard, but God willing, the Moroccan team will win," said Jawad Aniny, a Moroccan living in Qatar.
While Morocco, in the last 16 for the first time since 1986, is the underdog, the support of its vociferous, red-clan fans has been seen as a big asset in the first World Cup hosted by an Arab state.
The match may gain piquancy from the familiarity of the opponents. The Spanish mainland is visible from Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar and thousands of Moroccans live there for work.
As a colonial power, Spain controlled swathes of northern Morocco as well as the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which Rabat sees as its own, and still retains two small North African enclaves at Ceuta and Melilla that Rabat says it should quit.
The Moroccan consulate in Spain has asked fans to "show sportsmanship regardless of the result" and to avoid doing anything that could trigger incidents with Spanish fans.