David Beckham rarely gives one-on-one interviews. But in late 2019, on a visit to Doha to watch the Fifa Club World Cup, he granted one to the Qatari television network beIN Sports, the purpose of which soon became clear. The main topic of conversation was Beckham’s enthusiastic support for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup: he paid tribute to its “safe facilities, great hotels and great culture”, and declared “something unique is really being created here”.
That many of the facilities and hotels had been built by indentured labour and that much of Qatar’s culture was unavailable to its female population appeared not to divert the former England captain unduly. Naturally, he had heard a few murmurs of dissent, but nothing worth taking too seriously. As he put it: “You always get questioned about certain things… But it’s nice to prove people wrong. And that’s exactly what has been done.”
You might think it takes a certain chutzpah to reimagine Qatar’s staging of the World Cup – amid long-standing accusations of human rights abuse – as a heart-warming tale of vindication against the odds. But then this is just the sort of deft salesmanship that has made Beckham such a coveted business partner. In recent weeks multiple outlets have reported that he has agreed to act as an ambassador for Qatar 2022. The Sun quoted a source from the Beckham camp who argued that the ex-footballer’s involvement “can effect significant positive change”.
Certainly, the deal will generate plenty of spare change for Beckham, who is said to be earning anywhere between £10m and £150m for his endorsement. And yet while there has been some mild criticism from Amnesty International and other campaign groups, by and large Beckham has been spared the widespread public condemnation that – to take one recent example – greeted the sale of Newcastle United to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
Why might this be? In part this is attributable to Beckham’s curiously indefinable status since his retirement from football in 2013: a sports star only tangentially connected to sport, a media personality who doesn’t really do much media. The indignity of coaching and the overexposure of television punditry held little appeal for him. Instead he has carved out a sort of liminal space for himself somewhere between sport and celebrity, business and culture, the visible and the elusive. These days it’s hard to say what Beckham really is, which means it’s virtually impossible to calibrate an expectation of what he should be.
This is an ambiguity that is actively cultivated. The days when Beckham’s every move was dissected in forensic detail by a ravenous press are gone. Now, in concert with a close-knit circle of advisers, he chooses his projects with military precision and a strong emphasis on control: a curated portfolio of commercial endorsements, an ownership stake in the Major League Soccer club Inter Miami, a forthcoming Netflix documentary. Media access is strictly regimented and usually subject to stringent conditions. In other words, pretty much the only time Beckham appears in public these days is when he has something to sell us. Often it is Beckham himself: he is walking advertising space, a bewitchingly indistinct brew of style, taste, pre-watershed sex, athleticism and – most crucially of all – moral virtue.
And for all Beckham has sought to associate himself with good causes, it has never been entirely clear where the benevolence ends and the PR strategy begins. When he joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2013, he was lavishly praised for donating his entire salary to a children’s charity. Much less was said about how it helped him avoid France’s 75 per cent tax rate. His work with Unicef, meanwhile, was allegedly described thus by Beckham’s business partner Dave Gardner in a leaked email to the footballer’s publicist Simon Oliveira: “Unicef is crucial to the brand and his life… the charity work is crucial and nobody seems to realise how important this is as a part of the DB business.”
Back in the 1990s it became common in popular culture for Beckham to be mocked as a doe-eyed simpleton. Time, and a fortune estimated at more than £300m, have proven that he was much shrewder than people realised. But perhaps, ironically, there is an extent to which he still benefits from that caricature today. It renders him unthreatening, uncomplicated, devoid of hinterland or ulterior motive and thus eminently believable. This is the Beckham that Qatar has signed: the charmer, the grinning philanthropist, the man who smells too nice to lie to you.
What Beckham is getting out of the deal, on the other hand, is harder to discern. He doesn’t really need the money, although naturally he likes having it. But from a young age he has always been instinctively beguiled by power and wealth, always possessed an innate ability to work a room and identify the person in it who could move him up in the world. He has been friends with Nasser al-Khelaifi, the president of Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, since his playing days. And so it’s entirely possible he feels a genuine kinship with the place – this plucky little nation that made the world sit up and take notice.
Still, this particular endorsement comes with reputational risks. There is an undeniable dissonance in a cherished gay icon publicly aligning himself with an autocratic regime that prohibits homosexuality, in the son of an East End gas fitter promoting a tournament implicated in the mistreatment of thousands of workers. But for Beckham this is business, not politics, and he will doubtless have concluded that once the NGOs have said their piece, the whole thing will blow over. The relative lack of fuss suggests he’s probably right.
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained