After a long career as English football’s Golden Boy (and Balls) – currently to be found saintly saving a squad of East London youngsters on Disney+ – could David Beckham’s carefully manicured grip on the nation be coming to an inglorious end?
He may have skipped over various speed bumps along the way: that penalty miss; that Rebecca Loos story; that amassing of a personal fortune of some £450 million; those daft tattoos. But it feels like, with the latest venture for Brand Becks, he’s massively dropped the ball.
Beckham has reportedly been receiving £10 million as an ambassador for Qatar, a role that requires him to promote the country and take part in adverts where he simperingly declares how the Emirates “really is an incredible place to spend a few days on a stopover”.
It’s a savvy, if jaw-droppingly transparent, bit of would-be Becks-washing from the cash-rich nation in the midst of the ongoing controversy surrounding the competition. There’s the 6,500 deaths (as reported in 2021, though the exact number “may never be known”) during the construction of the competition’s stadiums and infrastructure. The minimum 100,000 migrant workers Amnesty International consider to have been exploited and abused in the overall process. The corruption that awarded Qatar 2022 host nation status in the first place. And, as fans of the competing nations arrived this week, there’s the issue of the safety of LGBTQ+ supporters in a country where sexual activity between same-sex couples is criminalised – and can be punishable by death.
This is the Becks who wore a leopard-print thong for David LaChapelle in 2002, oiled up, open-mouthed. And if you think that was for the mums, you’re having a laugh. But now, despite his assiduously cultivated image as the country’s favourite footballing son – a friend of the late Queen, a hugely charitable chap, a man who never really has many opinions besides saying nice things – Becks has found himself in a PR nightmare.
“David has been visiting Qatar regularly for over a decade and went on to play for PSG,” a David Beckham spokesman told the Metro, referring to Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by Qatar Sports Investment. “So he has seen the passion for football in the country and the long-term commitment that’s been made to hosting the World Cup and delivering a lasting legacy for the region.” Hmm.
The path to the 2022 World Cup has been contentious, to say the least. Recent Netflix documentary Fifa Uncovered felt like a true-crime tale of how the global football industry, FIFA and those at the top of the game’s governing body have turned joy into corruption. It also served as a not-so-friendly reminder of how this year’s tournament is a particularly testing time for football fans – those with a conscience, at least.
In late 2011, a year after Qatar was named the host nation, Qatari football official Mohamed bin Hammam, then-president of the Asian Football Confederation, was accused of buying votes in order for Qatar to bag the host victory. Though Qatar 2022 and Bin Hammam vehemently denied any wrongdoing, emails were obtained by the Sunday Times, and seen by the BBC. “It is now clear that Bin Hammam, 65, was lobbying on his country’s behalf at least a year before the decision,” the BBC said in 2014. “The documents also show how Bin Hammam was making payments directly to football officials in Africa to allegedly buy their support for Qatar in the contest.”
And just like that, a winter World Cup that no one asked for, and the unprecedented tarnishing of a quadrennial global knees-up. But now that the tournament is upon us, attention turns to what fans journeying to Qatar will experience on the ground.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look like they’ll be experiencing anything like the all-singing, all-dancing festival of football we normally associate with World Cups. Organisers have reportedly struggled to find any musicians willing to shill for Qatari riyal, no matter how many millions have been on offer (and you can bet there will have been a lot on the table in terms of fees).
Indeed, the pre-match dialogue in terms of off-pitch entertainment has been more about who’s not gigging in the desert. Rod Stewart turned down over £1 million (“it’s not right to go”), while Dua Lipa has been forced to deny rumours that she’s performing. As she wrote in an Instagram story: “[I] look forward to visiting Qatar when it has fulfilled all the human rights pledges it [has] made.” At time of writing, the only performers who seem confirmed to appear in some capacity are Robbie Williams and BTS’ Jung Kook.
Jacob Jefferson, a life-long Arsenal fan and member of the Gay Gooners, was in primary school when the Qatar announcement was made in 2010.
“I didn’t have an understanding of the political issues around it,” he says. “But I remember being confused that a country with little to no football heritage had been chosen to host the tournament, alongside the very obvious issue about it having to take place in winter.
“Over time, my issues with the World Cup being hosted in Qatar has extended to the political and human rights sphere,” Jefferson adds. “The efforts FIFA have undertaken to distract from these issues is extremely worrying, and makes me think their support for other rights-based campaigns, whether that be on race or sexuality, are just performative and without substance.”
As it stands, in Qatar, LGBTQ+ people are, simply and appallingly, criminalised. FIFA president Gianni Infantino might have sent out a paltry “Qatar will be for everyone” press conference message last month. But with Human Rights Watch having documented “six cases of severe and repeated beatings and fives cases of sexual harassment” to LGBTQ+ people by Qatari authorities between 2019 and 2022, how much credence can we give we Infantino’s claim?
“Human Rights Watch said it had talked to four transgender women, one bisexual woman and one gay man who were all held in an underground prison in Doha,” the Washington Post reported last month, with Human Rights Watch’s report stating that “all were detained without charge, in one case for two months in solitary confinement, without access to legal counsel. None received any record of having been detained. These acts could constitute arbitrary detention under international human rights law.”
Little wonder queer home-nation supporters seem to be largely voting with their boots. In July, LGBTQ+ Wales fans vowed to boycott the World Cup. One fan laid it out to the BBC: “So FIFA said you’re safe to be yourself for the period of the World Cup. But when I leave [Qatar] there’s still an LGBTQ+ community who pretty much live in hiding. They’re not safe and I have to stand by my values.”
Patrick Hurley, treasurer of Pride of Irons, West Ham’s official LGBTQ+ supporters group, doesn’t know any LGBTQ+ fans heading to Qatar. “And I know a lot [of fans]!” he says. “In fact, Pride of Irons is officially recommending that our members don’t attend, due to the very real and dangerous concerns around safety and prosecution.”
And that’s for even the most minor demonstrations of sexuality. In September, The Guardian reported that the FA “believes it has assurance, that LGBT+ couples who hold hands in Qatar during the World Cup will not face prosecution… The FA has been told that supporters with rainbow flags will not be arrested.”
But with anti-LGBTQ+ laws that could lead to death, is that a risk any queer person would even want to take?
“The safest option gay football fans [have] is sadly not to go, and I don’t think there’s much the FA can do about this now we are so close to the tournament,” Jefferson says. “Action needed to be taken years ago, before the tournament qualification had even started.”
Now that we are, effectively, in stoppage time in terms of making Qatar a safe and welcoming place for all supporters, any light-touch message of acceptance from FIFA, the FA, Qatar or, indeed, the British government is redundant.
That, of course, hasn’t stopped the Qatari flag being flown by well-remunerated brand ambassadors – or actual ambassadors. James Cleverly, UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, will be attending the World Cup. Under questioning from gay Labour backbencher Chris Bryant, the Tory MP said: “I understand there will be people uncomfortable with Qatar hosting the World Cup, I get that. But my job is to make sure those people who do visit stay safe.”
The unassailable truth is, the World Cup should never have got to a place where the safety of marginalised people is in any way a concern. Not least because there’s enough homophobia to tackle in British football as it is.
“There’s still homophobic chants and name calling [that] happen almost every week at matches around the country. And we have yet to see a major, current British male player come out as LGBTQ+,” Hurley says. “We need to keep talking, informing, listening… and try to understand why someone might be homophobic or act in a homophobic way.”
In fact, Hurley’s distaste, like that of many UK-based fans, whatever their sexual orientation, is such that his boycott extends to not even watching the matches on telly.
“It’s a very personal decision and I don’t want to judge anyone else,” he acknowledges . “I know many LGBTQ+ fans [who] will still be watching. But I won’t be joining them.”
Meanwhile, Joe Lycett has given David Beckham an ultimatum. If the former footballer doesn’t pull out of his 10 million quid ambassadorship, the comedian will shred £10,000 of his own cash in a livestream before Monday’s World Cup opening ceremony. And if Becks does drop his role, Lycett will donate the same amount to a charity.
“You were the first premiership footballer to do shoots with gay magazines like Attitude, to speak openly about your gay fans, and you married a Spice Girl which is the gayest thing a human being can do,” Lycett said in a video message.
He may have already, and possibly fatally, tarnished his image. But Beckham has an injury-time opportunity to clear off the line what was an impending own-goal, and send a message of solidarity and protest to the Qatari authorities. But deciding whether even that’s enough to get fans back onside will take more than VAR.