Wherever Fahad, a gay man in his 40s, walks in his home city of Doha, from the Qatari capital’s coastal promenade, known as the Corniche, to the gleaming streets of the super-modern downtown Msheireb district, David Beckham smiles down from the billboards and the big flashing screens.
The former England captain, husband to the former Spice Girl Victoria, father to Brooklyn, Romeo, Harper and Cruz, is not just a face of the World Cup kicking off this Sunday, he is the pre-eminent figure – a 2022 version of the 1966 mascot World Cup Willie some might be tempted to say, if not something cruder.
Fahad tries to be understanding about the temptation posed by the £150m deal that Beckham is said to have been offered by Qatar, albeit the value of the contract is disputed. But the former footballer’s decision to accept the fortune from the royal house of Thani and take up the ambassadorial role is, to Fahad’s mind, a damnable pact worthy only of scorn.
“I see that his future will be ruined but at least he will have some millions,” said Fahad, who as a younger man spent two and a half months in solitary confinement in a Qatari prison for the crime of wearing makeup. “No, nothing has changed for us.”
Same-sex sexual activity is punishable by seven years in prison in Qatar. Under an interpretation of sharia law, it can lead to a death sentence. There is not so much an LGBTQ+ community in Qatar as a disparate collection of terrified individuals.
This summer, Beckham, 47, took part in a promotional film for Visit Qatar in which he spoke of the pride of Qataris about their culture. “The modern and traditional fuse to create something really special,” he said. It is his image flashing across Qatari World Cup Snapchat and Instagram channels. In a video message to a youth festival in Doha on Thursday he claimed the World Cup would be a platform for progress, inclusivity and tolerance. Two weeks ago, Beckham, donning dark sunglasses, posed alongside the British sculptor Hugo Dalton and his installation of golden goal posts on Doha’s Lusail City Marina.
In a jarring contrast, Human Rights Watch reported just a few days before the sunny photoshoot on the suffering of gay and transgender people who said they had been detained as recently as October in an underground prison in Doha’s Al Dafna district, six miles south of the golden posts, where they had been variously verbally abused, slapped, kicked and punched until they bled. One woman said she lost consciousness.
Beckham’s friend and former teammate Gary Neville was recently on the rough end of an appearance on the news panel show Have I Got News for You over his World Cup contract with the state-owned broadcaster beIN Sports. Robbie Williams and Black Eyed Peas have come under fire for agreeing to perform.
But Beckham, contrary to the pet name Golden Balls given to him by his wife in the innocent days of 2008, when he could do no wrong, has been the central target of the opprobrium.
Back in 2002 Beckham posed for the cover of Attitude, the gay magazine, and subsequently made the undeniably pioneering statement in a game riddled with homophobia that he was “honoured to have the tag of gay icon”.
The distance Beckham has seemingly travelled in the last two decades might account for much of the vehemence of the backlash coming his way.
The relationship with Qatar, a country with which he has longstanding links from his time as a player at the French club, Paris Saint-Germain, owned by Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, now arguably presents the biggest risk to the Beckham brand since his talent and “curtains” haircut caught the public attention with an audacious halfway-line goal against Wimbledon in 1996 in the red of Manchester United.
Piara Powar, the director of Fare, an anti-discrimination group that has an arrangement with Fifa to post monitors in the World Cup stadiums in Qatar, said it had pleaded behind the scenes without success for the country’s supreme committee, in charge of the event, to make a public statement welcoming LGBTQ+ people to the football.
“They were prepared to say some things off the record but not to do anything publicly,” Powar said of conversations that had carried on up to October. Judgments would be made, he suggested, about Beckham’s decision to maintain his link.
“Some of the things that people like David Beckham are learning is that human rights are universal and non-negotiable,” he said. “I have no doubt that the LGBTI community in western Europe will see him as somehow a traitor or someone who used to be an ally but no longer is.”
The comedian Joe Lycett said this week that he would put £10,000 of his own money into a shredder if Beckham did not end his deal with Qatar. Picking up his award for man of the year at the Attitude awards, the world’s only out top-tier footballer, Josh Cavallo, from Australia, told the audience: “Take that, David Beckham,” before appealing for him to speak out about LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar.
Beckham said this week: “Qatar dreamed of bringing the World Cup to a place that it had never been before, but that it wouldn’t be enough just to achieve things on the pitch. The pitch would be a platform for progress.”
But Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, who visited Qatar last month to stage a daring one day protest, could not be more withering.
“Despite Qatar being a sexist, homophobic and racist dictatorship, he’s reportedly described it as ‘perfection’,” he said. “Beckham was once a LGBT+ ally and icon but no more. He’s taken his 30 pieces of silver. Putting money before principles, he seems driven solely by pure greed.”
But could this really be terminal for the Beckham brand?
Andy Milligan, the author of Brand It Like Beckham, a book chronicling the building of the image of the boy from Leytonstone, has his doubts.
Beckham had maintained his appeal across the demographics for over a quarter of century, he said, despite episodes that would have surely killed off other celebrity figures.
There was the alleged affair in 2004 with his personal assistant Rebecca Loos (denied by Beckham), the petulant red card in the 1998 World Cup tie with Argentina that some speculate cost England the tournament, and then, perhaps most dangerous of all, the leak of emails published by European newspapers, in spite of an injunction, in 2017, which Beckham had railed in foul-mouthed terms to an aide about his lack of a knighthood.
This is not even the first time he has put his name in the hands of an authoritarian regime. Beckham became China’s global soccer ambassador in 2013 at a time when the game there had been tarnished by a match-fixing scandal and an exodus of internationals from the country’s Super League. “This is a wonderful sport that inspires people across the world and brings families together, so I’m relishing the opportunity of introducing more fans to the game,” Beckham said then.
Despite it all, the Beckham brand keeps going – and growing. The latest accounts of Beckham’s company DB Ventures mention deals with Adidas, the video game company Electronic Arts, the watch brand Tudor and the scotch whisky Haig Club. In 2020, the company posted an after-tax profit of £10.5m on a turnover of £11.3m. This for a man who retired from football in 2013.
“He has tended to be resilient because there is an awful lot of goodwill in the bank towards his brand,” said Milligan. “It comes back to character. Because for so many years he represented a lot of things people value: dedication, patriotism towards England, his work around children [as a Unicef goodwill ambassador] and the fact that everywhere around the world he is liked.
“Despite the fact that he is incredibly famous, he has a down-to-earth feeling about him. He queues for 13 hours to see the Queen’s coffin, he retains the Essex accent, he comes across humbly and that appeals to people around the world, particularly in Asia where humility is highly valued.”
Beckham offered a combination of “football, fashion and feelgood” – and his “smartness is often underestimated”, Milligan said.
He said: “Maybe most importantly he has an ability to recognise and take very good advice. So I think both him and Victoria have made smart decisions on who they have had around them to advise them.
“His very first choice of agent before Simon Fuller [former manager of the Spice Girls], when he was on loan at Preston North End, was Alan Shearer’s agent.”
This February, Beckham shuffled his team. Longstanding friend and business manager Dave Gardner stepped aside, and the US giant Authentic Brands Group (ABG) paid $269m (£225m) to take a controlling stake in DB Ventures. “Our shared vision makes ABG the ideal strategic partner to help unlock the full potential of my brand and business,” Beckham said.
“The question is, if there is an effect how long will it last?” Milligan said of the impact of Qatar on its star name. “If you look at Beckham’s history, the show moves on. We have very short memories nowadays. We are highly distractible, with short attention spans and a new story will emerge very quickly after the World Cup.” Some may think it is all over for brand Beckham but there is every chance he will bounce right back.