DOHA, Qatar — In the early days of the World Cup, with the group stage underway and the world’s eyes locked on Qatar, the host of soccer’s biggest championship was eager to take advantage of the spotlight shining on its tiny desert nation.
To sell itself to the world, Qatar had spent millions of dollars on celebrity endorsements, including agreements with a battalion of former soccer players who could speak to fans with street cred and in a common language. Now, the time had come to roll out its biggest signing, the one star in its arsenal in a league of its own: David Beckham.
So during a midweek lunchtime, plans were drawn up for Beckham and several other ex-players to show up at a fan zone set up close to Doha’s bayside Corniche. There, they would greet fans and be interviewed by an employee of the organizing committee on a specially built stage. Beckham’s team agreed to the request that he attend but set two conditions: his presence was not announced ahead of time, and reporters were not to be alerted.
The event was a dud. The fan zone at Al Bidda Park was so deserted at the arranged time, in fact, that the event was cancelled, even though Beckham and the others were already backstage, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.
The curious incident, though, was emblematic of the unusual relationship between Qatar and Beckham. It is a partnership with a pitchman who rarely pitches and an arrangement that has shadowed, rather than showcased, the host country. But it also has produced a strange reality in which one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities is at once everywhere but also nowhere.
Beckham’s face is plastered on billboards all over Doha. He appears in advertisements on television during halftime breaks and in social media feeds promoting a pass to access cultural events in Qatar. He has also been spotted in the VVIP stands at World Cup stadiums, and he was filmed visiting the England team before its elimination.
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What Beckham has not done, not when he signed up to represent Qatar almost two years ago at a reported cost of more than $150 million, not during the World Cup, is talk about why he agreed to become an ambassador or take any questions about the many controversies that have raged around Qatar’s hosting of the world’s most watched sports event. Qatar has been attacked over its human rights record, its laws criminalizing homosexuality and the treatment of migrant workers from some of the poorest corners of the earth recruited to build the World Cup. But Beckham appears to have been shielded from any risk of awkward questions.
In London, for example, months before the World Cup, tournament officials thought it would be a good idea to promote the work of the female Qatari artist behind the tournament’s official posters at a special event at the Design Museum. Beckham, they thought, could attend to add his stardust. Instead, they were left frustrated when the positive response came with a caveat: Beckham was happy to go, but there should not be any media present.
By then, Beckham’s reluctance to speak in forums outside the carefully controlled spaces his team would have to agree on was beginning to attract attention. Requests to speak with him or understand his motivation to work for Qatar went unanswered. Rare comments to FIFA TV or friendly questioners connected to the World Cup and posts on his social media accounts were parsed for meaning, but in all of them he studiously avoided the tournament’s hot-button topics, including the plight of migrant workers, Qatar’s human rights record and LGBTQ concerns.
A publicist for Beckham issued a statement on Friday to The New York Times, the first on-the-record response after several previous inquiries, denying that he had been unavailable.
“David has been involved in a number of World Cups and other major international tournaments both as a player and an ambassador and he has always believed that sport has the power to be a force for good in the world,” it said.
“We understand that there are different and strongly held views about engagement in the Middle East but see it as positive that debate about the key issues has been stimulated directly by the first World Cup being held in the region,” the statement continued. “We hope that these conversations will lead to greater understanding and empathy towards all people and that progress will be achieved.”
For some Qatari officials, though, Beckham’s reluctance to engage on their behalf, despite his contract to promote Qatar, the country, and not just its World Cup, has been a cause for concern for months. In their view, Beckham, by not speaking up and by avoiding questioning by the media, was wielding his influence in ways that were at times counterproductive. For all the millions of dollars he was earning, the Qatari organizers felt, the scrutiny of their country was just becoming worse.
That exasperation only grew earlier this year.
One of Beckham’s former Manchester United teammates, Gary Neville, was traveling to Qatar to make a documentary on the World Cup for British television, one that would touch on issues such as Qatar’s human rights record. (Neville would later sign up to work as a match and studio commentator for the country’s multibillion-dollar sports network, beIN Sports.) As part of his visit to Qatar, Neville had arranged to interview Beckham separately for his show, the Overlap, which is also a podcast. Organizers thought that opportunity presented the best platform for Beckham to discuss the controversies and his role with a sympathetic questioner who was also a friend. But Beckham and his team balked at the idea, and when Neville’s interview was broadcast, Beckham’s unwillingness to talk about Qatar was noted once again.
Beckham’s special status has also linked several individuals among the galaxy of former stars hired as ambassadors to promote Qatar, a group that includes Cafu, a former World Cup-winning captain with Brazil, and Xavi, a World Cup winner with Spain and the current coach at Barcelona.
The staggering fee paid to Beckham, according to people with direct knowledge of the players’ payment contractual arrangements, created tensions when deals with other stars were being finalized. Several have been irritated by what they perceive to have been other signs of special treatment.
At one pre-World Cup event held at one of the tournament’s eight stadiums, for example, Qatar’s pitchmen were called to record content for one of its signature campaigns. Different stations were set up in the venue’s news-conference room, according to people present, for shoots with different celebrities. The players invited included Javier Mascherano, a former Argentina defender, the former Germany captain Lothar Matthäus and the popular former Iran player Mehdi Mahdavikia.
The arrival of Beckham and his entourage, though, was greeted as something akin to a royal visit. All but the most essential staff were cleared from the room and asked to wait in a corridor. “I thought the emir was coming,” one official said.
During the World Cup, his special status has been evident. Beckham, who left halfway through the tournament before returning to Qatar for the closing stages, has been provided with more lavish accommodations than other players; he stays at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, while the others have been staying in apartment-style rooms at a Hilton on the other side of the city. Most of his engagements have been on an exclusive basis, without having to share a platform, a situation that left one former player to ask, “How many World Cups Beckham has won?” The answer, he and the other stars knew, was none.
The money has not come without a cost. Beckham’s relationship with Qatar has damaged his reputation in Britain, particularly within the gay community, which until his reported $150 million agreement had seen the former soccer player as a champion of LGBTQ rights and an icon for related causes.
Last month, Joe Lycett, a British comedian, made headlines by appearing to shred 10,000 British pounds (about $12,000) after issuing Beckham with an ultimatum that he would do so unless he canceled his agreement with Qatar. A day later, Lycett revealed that the destruction of the money had been a stunt and that the money had instead been donated to LGBTQ charities.
On Thursday, Lycett read out in full the same statement that Beckham’s team later provided to The Times about his endorsement of Qatar. He then also spoke with a man named Naser Mohamed, a physician who claims to be the first and only openly gay Qatari.
Mohamed said he tagged Beckham’s Instagram account in a post about the dangers facing homosexuals in Qatar and then was promptly blocked by the account.