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David Beckham: Will the feel-good factor of Save Our Squad survive his Qatar connections?

David Beckham's feel-good docu-series coaching under-14s in East London is at odds with his big money deal as ambassador for Qatar

Westward Boys left back Orlando with new coach David Beckham.

Westward Boys left back Orlando with new coach David Beckham. Image: Disney+

It’s a game of two halves for David Beckham this winter. First, there’s Save Our Squad with David Beckham on Disney+. The four-part feel-good documentary series sees the former England captain return to the grassroots of the game he loves, helping coach Westward Boys under-14s team in East London as they fight to avoid relegation from the Echo Premier League (in which Beckham played for Ridgeway Rovers in as a teenager).

But then, more troublingly, there is another high profile role – as a very well paid culture and tourism ambassador for Qatar ahead of this year’s World Cup, which begins later this month and will be played out against a backdrop of the host nation’s persecution of gay people, mistreatment of migrant workers building the stadiums, and institutionalised misogyny.

Beckham has split the crowd before. He was 1990s football’s biggest pin-up – Golden Balls, Galactico, Spice Boy and Champions League-winning star for Manchester United, Real Madrid and PSG, and possessed a right foot that was the envy of the football world.

But he was also subjected to horrific abuse from fans, becoming a hate figure in the wake of being scapegoated for England’s failure at the World Cup in 1998, following his sending off against Argentina.

This year has been a good year for Beckham and his reputation. He reinforced his man-of-the-people image by queueing alongside millions of others to pay his final respects to the Queen as she lay in state. No queue jumping, no VIP lanes, just a good hat, some donuts for his fellow queuers and a few selfies.

And this is the David Beckham we meet in Save Our Squad with David Beckham. “I’m from a working-class family. I’ve always wanted to give back to football… this league is where it all began for me,” he says, as he prepares to meet the young players from Westward Boys.

Beckham watches a match in secret – they lose – before entering the dressing room to bolster morale. We see his nerves about whether the young players will accept him. As if they wouldn’t.

The series focuses on the community around the club, as well as the individual players and the team’s progress. The feel-good factor is strong with this one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgQUed4iEI8

At the launch of Save Our Squad with David Beckham, attended by the entire Beckham clan, the former footballer said: “I wanted people to really see how important grassroots football is. When I see the parents out there, when I see the community that this league, and grassroots football brings, it takes me right the way back to when I was playing.

“My mum used to drive me to every single training session. Even at 38, my mum and dad were still there watching me in my last game of professional football.”

Beckham joins the boys in training, shows he can still kick a mean free kick and talks about playing for Manchester United and England before he takes the squad on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Wembley Stadium.

David Beckham at Wembley with Westward Boys under-14s
David Beckham at Wembley with Westward Boys under-14s. Image: Disney+

“Nice left foot,” he says to Orlando, the quiet newcomer in the Westward Boys squad. We see the youngster’s chest swell with pride. Beckham’s words are powerful.

Beckham, assisting coaches Ade Abayomi and Edwin Mensah, offers support on and off the pitch. He visits one player at home and discovers that, aside from youth football, poetry is Kuro’s outlet. Beckham is visibly moved by Kuro’s poem outlining the racism he has endured. “It makes me angry and sad that you’ve had to experience that kind of abuse,” says Beckham.

These moments of connection show just how much Beckham can be a force for good. He holds a special place in so many of our hearts and minds. Watching him gradually open up to the young East Londoners, witnessing the way he inspires people, and seeing his joy at being involved in grassroots football again is a reminder of all that is great about Beckham.

David Beckham with winger-turned-defender Vaughan
David Beckham with winger-turned-defender Vaughan. Image: Disney+

But can David Beckham’s reputation survive his long-term contract with Qatar – reportedly £150m over ten years? His former teammate Eric Cantona is not a fan. “I think they did wrong. I think they made a big mistake. A big, big mistake.” These were King Eric’s words on former players signing up for Qatar.

Further reports suggest high-profile fans and former players are being paid to effectively spread propaganda about the World Cup – making the tournament in Qatar about as far away from the simple pleasure of grassroots community football clubs as it is possible to get.

So it is decision time. Will Beckham just take the money and run? Or will he use the platform he has built over many years to speak out? Will he say and do the difficult thing, raise awareness, call out Qatar’s shocking human rights record and demand that both football and Qatar do better from now on?

Beckham believes football to be a force for good. His new series shows it can be. But if he is to avoid the suggestion that Save Our Squad with David Beckham was some pre-emptive, pre-World Cup reputation-washing exercise, Beckham needs to speak out sooner rather than later.

Over to you, Becks…

Save Our Squad with David Beckham is available on Disney+ from November 9

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