Beer ban, Beckham and a vagina stadium: the World Cup in inglorious technicolor | World Cup 2022

Some of my greatest regrets in life are things I’ve declined on principle. So in many ways, I’m sorry not to be in Qatar for the World Cup. On reflection, I’d have liked to take a detailed look at the horror show, in situ. I was once extremely close to travelling with Donald Trump’s presidential party and some bad boys of Brexit to Mississippi, where the fash-Wotsit was guest of honour at the opening of a civil rights museum, of all things. Insulting? Disgusting? Grotesque? Obviously. But let me tell you: there would have been plenty to write about. I’d have got 5,000 words out of the plane flight alone.

Fast forward to the present day, then, and I am nearly disappointed not to be seeing one of the great horrors of the sporting/geopolitical age in inglorious technicolour. Then again, how many words are honestly available? It’s possible Fifa has finally contrived to pull off the genuinely unprecedented: a World Cup where, two days out from kick-off, there is only one thing to say about it all.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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Even someone as electrifyingly articulate as David Beckham is reduced to promoting Doha by claiming “it’s one of the best spice markets I’ve ever been to”. Surely not better than the Say You’ll Be There video, the spice market where he chose his wife? (And which, coincidentally, was also desert-based.) Unfortunately, the only thing anyone now wants to hear from Beckham is an answer to the question “how much money is enough?”. Some estimates place his Qatar promotional fee at £150m over 10 years, which is about £12m for every hour he did earning PR points in the queue for the late Queen’s lying-in-state. Cynical? Hey – it’s not me who’s a self-marketed metrosexual whose family wealth was recently estimated at £425m, yet who somehow wants even more cash from a regime that imprisons and brutalises gay people.

Given the choice of addressing this or the modern slavery deaths, I see Gianni Infantino has instead taken refuge in some mad diversity-and-inclusion message. The Fifa president recently released a snippy little open letter to national football associations. “At Fifa,” this ran, “we [try not] to hand out moral lessons to the rest of the world.” Very wise. It would be like Charles Bronson drawing himself up to his full height and explaining that at HMP Woodhill, he tries not to hand out moral lessons to the rest of the world.

The Fifa boss went on to tell fans to shut up about Qatar and love the World Cup, because: “No one people or culture or nation is ‘better’ than any other … this is also one of the core values of football.” To which the only decent reply is: what are you talking about, you grasping shitmuncher? The entire point of your tournament is for one nation to be better than any other! That is literally what international sport is! And guess what – the nation that ends up being better at football is not going to be Qatar, who are a) crap and b) treat people like crap.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino
Fifa president Gianni Infantino tries to keep everyone focused on the football. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Honestly, can someone mint a participation medal for Gianni – preferably one that weighs 250 kilos, to keep him rooted to the spot for the entire tournament, and able only to contemplate the radioactively sarcastic words of its engraving: “WELL DONE FOR TRYING”.

If not, we’re going to be subjected to weeks of him offering variants of his recent exhortation: “Please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists!” OMG, likewise? Can YOU stop also allowing it to be? Fifa voted for the two most recent World Cups to go to Russia and Qatar, which is about as nonpolitical and nonideological as things screamed off various European balconies during the first half of the 20th century.

Anyway: is there anything to love about the imminent World Cup? Certainly not the sensational last-minute beer ban. (Although let’s face it – serving only Budweiser was already a de facto beer ban.) I’m told the tiny geographic scale offers itinerant fans some “logistical relief”. It takes longer to get from Infantino’s eyebrows to his hairline than it does to travel between the various host cities. And I like the fact that as part of their attempts to create some kind of fan Stasi, the hosts have reportedly paid for some of the England Band to attend. That means that every time you hear arguably the nation’s most annoying sound (including a reversing Securicor vehicle), you’ll forever know that some of its purveyors have shown their arses for coins. Arguably a valuable public service.

But, hand on heart, my favourite thing so far is the Qatar World Cup stadium that looks like a vagina. I feel it says everything about what we’re dealing with. Consider this: at no point in the design sign-off process did one of the guys on the organising committee – and it will have been all guys – have the balls to say: “Look lads, I might end up taking a lot of stick, but doesn’t this … doesn’t this look like a vagina?” I mean, come on – they must have seen one.

More to the point, in a country where you can be arrested for being gay, you’d have thought it a social imperative for these men to publicly show an easy familiarity with the intimate parts of the female anatomy. Yet every single one of them appears to have been too fearful of something to say anything, which means that they’ve ended up with THE biggest self-own of a stadium in world sport. And so it is that – game after game – “dignitaries” from this vicious, censorious, homicidal, women-hating regime will turn out to sit in a giant fanny. It doesn’t remotely make up for the rest of it, obviously. But I am here for that spectacle, at least.

Marina Hyde’s World Cup Week will appear each Friday during the tournament

‘A gay icon no more’: will David Beckham’s Qatar role kill his brand? | David Beckham

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.

David Beckham claims World Cup will be platform for progress and tolerance | David Beckham

David Beckham is facing further criticism for his role as an ambassador for Qatar after claiming the World Cup would be a platform for progress, inclusivity and tolerance.

Beckham, who is reported to be receiving £150m from the Qataris, offered his upbeat assessment in a video message played to guests at the Supreme Committee’s “Generation Amazing” youth festival in Doha, where he also told guests that “today is your day to dream”.

The issue of workers’ and LGBTQ+ rights continues to be a theme in the buildup to this World Cup, along with questions over how much Qatar has changed since being awarded the tournament in 2010. However Beckham appeared in no doubt as to how much progress the country had made.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Thank you for your feedback.

“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,” he said. “The pitch would be a platform for progress.”

He also said: “Dreams can come true. That is why you are here. You share Generation Amazing’s twin passions for the game of football and for making the world a more tolerant and inclusive place.”

Beckham has been increasingly criticised by LGBTQ+ groups, with Di Cunningham, co-founder of the Three Lions Pride group, last week saying he should no longer be considered a great ally because of his paid ambassador role.

However Beckham said Qatar and its ambassadors were changing lives for the better. “Every one of the great players I was lucky enough to play with started exactly the same way,” he said. “In a back garden, park, or a street outside their home with just a ball and an imagination that they dared to let run wild.

“Almost two decades ago a small group of football lovers from Qatar had an equally fantastic dream: that they could bring the greatest football show on earth to their home country and to the Middle East for the very first time.

“And now we are here. Because when dreams are harnessed and mixed with dedication and hard work, they are no longer dreams. They become reality.”

He added: “I want to say to all of you, ‘today is your day to dream’. Because there are no limits to what you and your teammates can achieve in our beautiful game.

“Even before this festival kicks off, more than a million lives have been touched to create an inspirational global community of coaches, educators and new young leaders. It all began as a dream. That is now yours. So please be inspired and pass it on.”

England LGBTQ+ fans’ group criticises David Beckham over World Cup role | David Beckham

The England national team’s largest LGBTQ+ supporters’ group has suggested that David Beckham should no longer be considered a great ally or placed on a pedestal after becoming a paid ambassador for the Qatar World Cup.

Di Cunningham, the co-founder of the Three Lions Pride group, said she was disappointed in Beckham’s decision to accept a deal – reported to be worth £150m – given that Qatari law criminalises same-sex relationships.

Cunningham was one among those who travelled to Russia for the World Cup in 2018 and said she found most people “so, so welcoming” on her visit. However, she said that Three Lions Pride would not go to Qatar because there was “no sign – as there was in Russia – of any appetite to relax or review the toxic environment there is for LGBTQ+ and other minority groups”.

Speaking at a Sport & Rights Alliance press briefing on Wednesday, Cunningham also praised those players who had spoken out in favour of LGBT+ rights in Qatar, before turning her focus on to Beckham, a former England captain.

“One of the difficulties is having people taking the money in order to promote Qatar and the World Cup,” she said. “I’m just so disappointed because we – the LGBTQ+ football family – have put David Beckham on a pedestal, as a great ally.

“And then it turns out that he’s taking a lot of money to be an ambassador for this World Cup, and that’s incredibly disappointing. So I really hope that the message has got through that people will be criticised for that.”

Meanwhile, Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch urged Fifa to never again go
to a country that does not uphold basic human rights. “Athletes are effectively hostages,” she warned. “They are lashed to the ship of Fifa and they have to go wherever the World Cup or the Club World Cup goes. And I think for many fans, athletes and others, the last decade has been a very bitter lesson.”

Worden also called for a human rights framework to be put in place for future bids before adding: “There can never again be a World Cup that does not uphold basic human rights and puts athletes whose job is their place of work in the invidious position of having to fear for their identity.

“We should never again have a World Cup that fails to respect basic human rights and has none of the expected assurances and protections.”