DOHA, Qatar – In the early days of the World Cup, with the group stage underway and the world’s attention on Qatar, the host nation of football’s biggest tournament was keen to take advantage of the spotlight shining on its tiny desert nation.
To market itself to the world, Qatar has spent millions of dollars on celebrity endorsements, including agreements with a phalanx of ex-footballers who can speak to fans with street credibility and a common language. Now, it’s time to launch her biggest deal, the one superstar in her arsenal in a league of his own: David Beckham.
So over the mid-week lunch break, plans were made for Beckham and several other ex-players to appear at the fan zone set up near the Doha Corniche. There, they would greet fans and be met on a specially built platform by an employee of the Organizing Committee. Beckham’s team accepted his request but set two conditions: not to announce his presence in advance, and not to alert reporters.
The event was useless. The fan area at Al Bidda Park was so deserted at the time, in fact, that the event was cancelled, even though Beckham and the others were already behind the scenes, according to several people familiar with the plans.
However, the strange incident was symbolic of the unusual relationship between Qatar and Beckham. It is a partnership with a rare bowler who rarely puts on a show and an arrangement that has overshadowed the host country rather than showing it. But it also spawned a bizarre reality in which one of the world’s most famous celebrities is simultaneously ubiquitous but also nowhere.
Beckham’s face has been plastered on billboards all over Doha. He appears in advertisements on television during half-time and in social media channels to promote pass access to cultural events in Qatar. He has also been spotted in the VVIP stands at World Cup stadiums, and photographed visiting the England team before their elimination.
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What Beckham didn’t do, not when he signed to represent Qatar nearly two years ago at an advertised cost More than 150 million dollars, not during the World Cup, talking about why he agreed to become an ambassador or answering any questions about the many controversies that have erupted over Qatar’s hosting of the world’s most-watched sporting event. Qatar has come under attack for its human rights record, its laws criminalizing homosexuality and its treatment of migrant workers from some of the poorest parts of the earth who were recruited to build the World Cup. But Beckham seemed to be shielded from the dangers of being asked embarrassing 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 Qatari artist behind the official posters of the tournament at a special event at the Design Museum. They thought Beckham could come along to add stardust. Instead, they were frustrated when the positive response came with a caveat: Beckham was happy to go, but there shouldn’t be any media present.
By then, Beckham’s reluctance to speak in forums outside of the carefully controlled spaces his team would have to agree on was beginning to gain traction. Requests to speak with him or understand his motives for working in Qatar have not been answered. Rare commentary on FIFA TV or Friendly questioners associated with the world cup Posts on his social media accounts were analyzed for meaning, but in each, he closely avoided the hot topics of the tournament, including the plight of migrant workers, Qatar’s human rights record, and LGBT concerns.
Beckham’s publicist issued a statement Friday to The New York Times, the first response on record after several prior inquiries, denying he was unavailable.
“David has participated in a number of World Cups and other major international tournaments as a player and ambassador, and has always believed that sport has the potential to be a force for good in the world,” the statement read.
The statement continued, “We understand that there are different and robust views on engagement in the Middle East, but we find it positive that discussion on key issues has been catalyzed directly by the first World Cup to be held in the region.” “We hope that these conversations will lead to greater understanding and empathy towards all people and that progress will be made.”
But for some Qatari officials, Beckham’s reluctance to participate on their behalf, despite his contract to promote Qatar, the country, and not just the World Cup, has been a source of concern for months. In their view, Beckham was, by not speaking out and avoiding media questioning, wielding his influence in ways that were sometimes counterproductive. Country regulators felt that for all the millions of dollars he was earning, the scrutiny in their country was getting worse.
That discontent only grew earlier this year.
One of Beckham’s former Manchester United teammates, Gary Neville, was traveling to Qatar to make a World Cup documentary for British television, one that would touch on issues such as Qatar’s human rights record. (Neville later signed on to work as a match and studio commentator for the multi-billion dollar sports network beIN Sports.) As part of his visit to Qatar, Neville arranged to interview Beckham separately on his show, The Overlap, which is also a podcast. The organizers believed that this opportunity presented the best platform for Beckham to discuss the controversies and his role with the sympathetic questioner who was also a friend. But Beckham and his team rejected the idea, and when Neville’s interview was broadcast, it was noted that Beckham was unwilling to talk about Qatar again.
Beckham’s special stature has also infuriated several individuals among the group of former stars appointed as ambassadors to promote Qatar, a group that includes Cafu, the former World Cup-winning Brazil captain, and Xavi, a World Cup winner with Spain and current coach. in Barcelona.
The staggering fee paid to Beckham, according to people with first-hand knowledge of the players’ payment contractual arrangements, caused tensions when deals with other stars were finalized. Many people have been disturbed by what they see as other signs of special treatment.
At a pre-World Cup event held in one of the tournament’s eight stadiums, for example, Qatari pitchers were called in to record the content of one of its signature campaigns. Various stops were set up in the venue’s press conference room, according to the people in attendance, to take pictures with different celebrities. Among the invited players were former Argentine defender Javier Mascherano, former German national team captain Lothar Matthaus and famous former Iran player Mehdi Mahdavikia.
Nevertheless, the arrival of Beckham and his entourage was greeted as something akin to a royal visit. All essential staff were taken out of the room and told to wait in a corridor. “I thought the prince was coming,” said one of the officials.
During the World Cup, his special status was evident. Beckham, who left midway through the tournament before returning to Qatar for the closing stages, was given more luxurious accommodations than the other players. He stays at the Mandarin Oriental, while the others stay in apartment-style rooms at the Hilton on the other side of town. Most of his appearances have been on an exclusive basis, without the need to share a podium, a situation that has left a former player asking, “How many World Cups has Beckham won?” The answer, as he and the other stars knew, was nothing.
The money did not come without a cost. Beckham’s relationship with Qatar has damaged his reputation in Britain, particularly within the LGBT community, which even his $150m deal saw the former footballer as an LGBT rights campaigner. Code for related reasons.
Last month, British comedian Joe Lysette made headlines It appears to have ripped off £10,000 (about $12,000) After Beckham issued 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 was a stunt and that the money was instead donated to LGBTQ charities.
On Thursday, Lycett read in full the same statement Beckham’s team later provided to The Times about his endorsement of Qatar. Then he also spoke with a man named Nasser Mohammed, a doctor who claims to be the first openly gay Qatari.
Mohammed said he tagged Beckham’s Instagram account in a post about the dangers faced by homosexuals in Qatar, and was then promptly banned by the account.
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