David Beckham has made his first public statement on his controversial involvement with the World Cup host nation Qatar, telling a TV show through a spokesperson that he “has always believed that sport has the power to be a force for good in the world”.
“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.
It added: “We hope that these conversations will lead to greater understanding and empathy toward all people and that progress will be achieved.”
The statement – given to the comedian Joe Lycett and read out on a special edition of his show, Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back – came in response to intense criticism that Beckham, 47, had accepted millions of pounds from Qatar to serve as an ambassador for the games in spite of the country’s repressive stance on LGBTQ+ rights, its human rights record and allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers.
The former England captain’s endorsements for the host nation have included a promotional film for Visit Qatar. “The modern and traditional fuse to create something really special,” he said. In a subsequent video message, he said that the World Cup would be a platform for progress, inclusivity and tolerance.
The endorsements have received stinging criticism, particularly from members of the LGBTQ+ community, who claim that Beckham’s support of Qatar runs counter to his image as a supporter of gay rights.
“Some of the things that people like David Beckham are learning is that human rights are universal and non-negotiable,” Piara Powar, the director of Fare, an anti-discrimination group, told the Observer last month. “I have no doubt that the LGBTQ+ community in western Europe will see him as somehow a traitor or someone who used to be an ally but no longer is.”
Beckham’s statement came in the context of a Times article that sought to unpick the football player’s relative absence from the games, despite his image being plastered all over Doha.
The paper claimed the celebrity player had placed conditions on his public appearances in Qatar, including that his presence would not be announced ahead of time, alerts would not be sent to reporters and that Beckham had appeared to be shielded from questions.
But a publicist for the player denied that he had been unavailable. “David has been involved in a number of World Cups and other major international tournaments 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,” the statement said.
The statement is notable for its omission: nowhere is Qatar mentioned. That may further anger Qatari officials, who are reported to be frustrated that Beckham has avoided questions and not spoken up for the country he is contracted to promote – a situation that had become “counterproductive” for Qatar.
“For all the millions of dollars he was earning, the Qatari organisers felt, the scrutiny of their country was just becoming worse,” the paper wrote.
• This article was amended on 18 December 2022. Beckham provided his statement to comedian Joe Lycett, not to the New York Times as an earlier version said.