David Beckham remains one of England’s biggest names, some 13 years on from the last time he pulled on the national jersey.
He was the highest-paid player in the sport, even his kids are national celebrities, and he’s spent his years since retiring swanning around the world and doing what he likes, including buying into an MLS club. It’s safe to say he’s got some cash.
So what on earth is he doing in Qatar?
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The 47-year-old is one of the faces of the FIFA World Cup, working as an ambassador for the Arab nation in one of the many ways it’s trying to use this tournament as a vehicle to rebrand the country.
Look how pretty all these stadiums are! No, don’t worry about the $300 billion we’ve had to spend on infrastructure to make it realistic to host things in the middle of the desert. And don’t worry about the bidding process that led to us getting it. And the necessary move from summer to winter, disrupting leagues across the world. And definitely don’t worry about the thousands of dead migrant workers and horrific conditions many went through.
It’s sports washing at its finest – and no, we’re not saying every country is perfect, but that’s a straw man. And let’s not let perfection be the enemy of the good; Awful things have inarguably occurred to ensure this football tournament can occur.
Beckham has been part of Qatar’s simultaneous tourism campaign for months, attempting to convince the world this slice of the Arab peninsula is worth visiting for its clean, manufactured luxury – over its neighboring nations trying to make the exact same argument.
He tours a spice market in Doha in one ad, declaring “the modern and the traditional fuse to create something really special”.
It is somewhat strange for Beckham to be doing all of this work for the World Cup and its host nation given his family fortune is an estimated $748 million.
Well, there are two costs for the work. The financial, and the reputational.
The first is what Beckham appears to care most about. Some estimates have him earning $264 million over 10 years to become the face of Qatari tourism; a handy chunk of change, no doubt.
But is bolstering their brand worth the damage he is doing to the Beckham one?
As many top athletes do, Beckham spent much of his playing and post-playing careers involved in charity work. He has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2005, and for almost eight years he has run his own charity fund.
He has been described as a “gay icon”, not just for their admiration of the man himself, but for his support for the LGBTQI+ community. He has won awards for his support of him in Britain and been praised for speaking out about normalizing gay people in sport, and allowing players to come out.
But Beckham’s Qatar deal runs in direct contrast to all of that, as he works for a nation where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by prison – or even the death penalty if you’re a Muslim, due to Islamic sharia law.
“David Beckham continues to keep his money just about as far as possible from where his mouth is when it comes to the LGBTQ community,” Attitude magazine wrote earlier this year.
More recently British comedian Joe Lycett said he would shred £10,000 ($17,500) if Beckham did not withdraw from the partnership.
“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,” he said.
Other celebrities have spoken out against Qatar such as musician Dua Lipa who denied she would be a surprise performer at the World Cup’s opening ceremony.
“I will not be performing and nor have I ever been involved in any negotiation to perform,” she wrote.
“I will be cheering England on from afar and I look forward to visiting Qatar when it has fulfilled all the human rights pledges it made when it won the right to host the World Cup.”
British political journalist Andrew Pierce said on Good Morning Britain: “As for David Beckham, he should be hanging his head in shame. He is a gay icon, hugely popular around the world, and he’s doing this for one reason: millions in the bank.”
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The Times’ Matt Lawton, who pointed out Beckham was part of the British World Cup bid team that lost to the Russians for the 2018 tournament on the same day the 2022 event was awarded to Qatar, said “there’s no doubt that the 47-year -old’s image is being tarnished”.
He wrote Beckham was “performing like a trained seal”.
But in the end, money talks, Lawton explained.
“Clearly, cash is important to him,” he wrote.
“There are some who believe that he is driven by a desire to more than double that number (a net worth of £425 million, or $AU748 million) and become the first billionaire footballer.”
Because if there’s anything that we know makes people happy, it’s money.