When a new documentary about a sporting icon is billed as ‘candid’ and ‘revelatory’, the media machine cranks up a gear.
At the premiere of David Beckham’s eponymous Netflix documentary in London this week, reporters were jostling to get time with the main man. Questions about his ambassadorial role with Qatar were inevitable.
In an ongoing deal that began before last year’s FIFA World Cup in the Gulf state, the Manchester United and Real Madrid legend is receiving millions of dollars a year to talk up Qatari interests such as sports and tourism.
Beckham has been criticized for his involvement by numerous human rights groups, not least those representing LGBTQ people, with the footballer having long courted attention from the gay community.
Qatar is ranked as one of the seven most LGBTQ-unfriendly nations on earth by the online resource Equaldex.
“Whatever partnership I go into, we always do our homework on everything,” he said. “To be involved in another World Cup, for me, was important.
“This was an opportunity for the Arab world to host one of the biggest, if not the biggest, sporting events in the world.”
Alluding to his critics, he added: “We knew there were going to be people that were going to either talk about it a little bit more, or let the football do the talking.”
Then came a surprising claim.
“I had a lot of conversations with the LBGTQ people when I was there. They said they’d been treated perfectly fine, they’d enjoyed the games. They felt it was the safest World Cup that they’d had for a long time.
“It was an important competition and one I was proud to be part of.”
He made a similar justification for his involvement in a recent feature interview for the Daily Telegraph, again promoting the documentary.
For Dr Nas Mohamed, who challenged his homeland over its World Cup sportswashing and who continues to campaign fiercely to raise awareness of LGBTQ human rights abuses in the Gulf, Beckham’s comments are, at best, confused.
It is nearly 18 months since Mohamed first spoke in international media about being a gay man. The San Francisco-based physician remains the only Qatari to be publicly out as LGBTQ.
“If David Beckham had really done his homework, as he claims, he would know what it’s like to be a gay person in Qatar,” Mohamed told Outsports. “It’s scary. It’s dangerous.
“On the red carpet, he didn’t really say that the LGBTQ people he was talking to were Qatari. Did he just bring an American gay person with him? Is that what happened?
“Because when we talk about LGBTQ issues, we include us — the local community that is impacted. There are facts about LGBTQ Qataris that are out there now. That was a huge part of the campaign that I was doing last year.
“I even did the homework for him. I directly reached out to his PR team and asked to have an audience with him. For that, I was blocked on social media.”
Although Mohamed was later ‘unblocked’, he never got to talk Beckham through the wealth of information he had amassed — data about Qataris who had sought asylum in different countries, the patterns of persecution, and the personal testimonies of those who had suffered physical abuse at the hands of Qatar’s Preventive Security Department.
He was, however, able to directly discuss the report he helped to compile for Human Rights Watch with presidents of national football associations such as Norway, and with US State Department Special Envoy, Jessica Stern.
Documentary film-makers also made use of the material and the Alwan Foundation, the non-profit organization Mohamed set up a year ago, will now be a contributor to ILGA’s annual country conditions report.
“They all think our information is accurate and relevant,” he says. “But who thinks that talking to us is not convenient or important? David Beckham.”
‘If you’re going to talk, be accurate’
Reading all the headlines about ‘Beckham’ on Netflix, and seeing how the former footballer is able to reflect so breezily on the experience of LGBTQ people at the tournament, is difficult for Mohamed.
Global attention may have largely shifted away from Qatar for the time being, but sport remains a significant part of its long-term soft-power strategy.
Max Verstappen is expected to be crowned F1 world champion again at the Qatar GP this weekend. Early next year, the country will host soccer’s Asian Cup and the World Aquatics Championships. It will be the first Arab nation to stage a major basketball tournament when the FIBA World Cup is held there in 2027. And after three failed bids to host a Summer Olympics, another attempt is expected for the 2036 Games.
That’s before you even contemplate Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim’s hopes of buying Manchester United. On such a scale, it is hard enough to compete with the PR professionals, but the ‘Beckham’ circus only adds to the workload for an “outsider” like Mohamed.
“I’m somebody that doesn’t have a platform anywhere near as big as him and I’m trying to fight every day for this issue, to support the communities in our Gulf region,” he said.
“It feels defeating — to work so hard to create awareness, to educate and bring this information to light, and then have somebody like him in one moment on a red carpet say something like ‘things are OK in Qatar’ and just walk away.
“It’s self-serving and it undermines the danger that people face. Beckham is delusional, frankly.
“I find it quite shocking, seeing him make such bold statements and then for people to just nod. It’s partly because there aren’t many voices like mine.”
It’s a key area of focus for Mohamed and the Alwan Foundation, to amplify more LGBTQ voices representing different parts of the Gulf region. He mentions Tariq Aziz, who is gay and non-binary and an activist advocating on behalf of fellow LGBTQ people from Saudi Arabia, which this week formally announced its bid for the 2034 men’s FIFA World Cup.
“Tariq is a very powerful voice from Saudi that’s based here in the US like me. But it’s going to take time to ensure more people are safe to speak out — and will people do the homework, as Beckham claims he did?
“I’d rather he’d just said that he was there to enjoy the football and that he doesn’t get involved with human rights. I don’t expect everybody to be a champion for that.
“But if you’re going to talk about the issue, then you need to be accurate and use your platform with caution, otherwise we’re going to have to come after you and correct you. Because you’re hurting us.”
A question of allyship
One section of the documentary focuses on the vilification that Beckham faced after his red card in England’s defeat by Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.
The midfielder was only 23 at the time. He was sent off for kicking out at an opponent in frustration and was blamed by fans and the media for England’s exit from the tournament. He received death threats and an effigy of him was even hung by a noose outside a south London pub.
In the documentary, wife Victoria says Beckham was left clinically depressed by the episode. He describes the aftermath of the red card in the film: “It changed my life. I felt very vulnerable and alone. Wherever I went, I got abuse every single day.
“People look at you in a certain way, spit at you, abuse you, come up to your face and say some of the things that they said. That was difficult.”
Viewers will feel sympathy for the extreme experience that the couple went through.
“Now, at 48 years old, I beat myself up about it,” says Beckham.
The strength of character he showed to come back from that was laudable. Within a year, he had won the Treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League trophies with Manchester United, and in 2001, he scored the crucial stoppage-time free-kick that secured England’s qualification for the next World Cup.
He began to lean more into his ‘metrosexual’ image, turning up to the christening of Liz Hurley’s baby wearing pink nail polish, and appearing on the front cover of gay magazine Attitude.
He said he was “flattered” that gay men found him attractive. Already married to a Spice Girl and a close friend to Sir Elton John and David Furnish, his support for the community was seen as a huge strength.
When the Qatar World Cup began, comedian Joe Lycett shredded that same Attitude cover in a protest against Beckham’s lucrative relationship with the tournament organizers, having initially claimed it was £10,000 in cash. Lycett instead donated the money to LGBTQ charities.
Just before the World Cup final, Beckham responded to Lycett through his PR team with a tepid statement — the first time he had addressed the criticism surrounding his Qatar deal — suggesting his involvement had helped to ‘stimulate debate’.
“We hope that these conversations will lead to greater understanding and empathy towards all people and that progress will be achieved,” the statement said.
Mohamed says that for LGBTQ people in Qatar, none of this has yet come to pass.
“If anything, it’s gotten worse. Between March and July, new officials were appointed by the government to be in charge of the Preventive Security Department and they really doubled down, on all forms of crackdowns.
“There were a lot of random detentions, and deportations of foreign workers that are of Asian descent who were living and working in Qatar. For LGBTQ Qataris, I’ve heard of a few arrests.
“A lot of people there are living in this helpless reality, and their individual stories are impacted by connections, wealth, family status and origin. That makes it even more complicated.”
It’s another reason why he questions Beckham’s suggestion that he did his ‘homework’ and his comments about speaking to LGBTQ people who had positive experiences while attending the World Cup.
“If you don’t have a good sample size of the community over there, you can have the wrong impression. It can look very different on the ground for different groups.
“The piece we’re trying to work on now with the Alwan Foundation is to try to publish more evidence-based reporting in a systematic way. Then we’ll be able to say this is the reality of what’s happening in Qatar.”
For those keen to help, there are opportunities to volunteer with the non-profit, while greater financial support is also needed. “We’re a baby non-profit so we value connections and people pointing us in the right direction,” says Mohamed.
With staging more mega-events in the future a focus for Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, he would particularly like to hear from people with relevant influence who can help to turn the tide of sportswashing.
Beckham appears to be a lost cause, but Mohamed is convinced there are LGBTQ people and active allies out there who have benefited financially from sport and who want to give back in a meaningful way.
His enthusiasm is infectious. “Anyone who’s remotely passionate about helping this cause or advancing it can reach out to us and we’ll work with them.”
He adds with a smile: “And I’ll help them do their homework as well.”