Sources close to David Beckham have denied reports he’ll play in an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia after the kingdom announced the game as part of a multi-billion pound revamp of its entertainment industry.
The country’s sports minister claimed the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England player would be captaining a team against a side led by former French World Cup winner, Zinedine Zidane, later this year.
He said the game would be part of a £60billion pound re-launch of the entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia, called the National Transformation Programme.
Saudi Arabia announces an exhibition football match that will feature David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane as part of a £60bn relaunch of its entertainment industry
As well as football matches, this would also include Broadway-style musicals, a monster truck rally, a Pamplona-style bull run and ‘hologram performances by dead musicians’.
But sources close to the footballer said he is unlikely to play in the match, which would be a humiliating blow to the Saudi authorities who made the announcement with great fanfare.
Announcing the Beckham-Zidane tie-up with images of the legendary pair on a giant screen behind him, the Saudi sports minister, Turki Al-Sheikh said: ‘This is an exhibition match including two big worldwide stars – Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham playing against each other – each will be in a different team – alongside other world stars. If God wills, you will see it this year in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’
Sources say Beckham never agreed to the match, but Saudi’s sports minister seemed confident it will be played this year
News of the announcement led human rights campaigners, Amnesty International, to warn celebrities against ‘sportswashing’, when a controversial regime re-brands, or launders, its tarnished image through prestigious events.
Saudi Arabia has been vilified for its war in Yemen which has created the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world with millions on the brink of famine.
The UN children’s aid group, UNICEF, for whom Beckham works as a goodwill ambassador, has criticised the Saudi-led coalition saying its bombing attacks there have had catastrophic consequences for the local population.
Riyadh has also come under attack for its continued incarceration of more than a dozen women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul who once appeared in a Vanity Fair photoshoot for One Young World with the then Meghan Markle.
Loujain’s sister, Alia, has criticised American singer Mariah Carey for playing a concert on Thursday at the King Abdullah Economic City.
Beckham’s side will go up against a team led by French World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane if it goes ahead
She said: ‘My own baby sister said she is being whipped, beaten, electrocuted and harrassed on a frequent basis.
‘Remember, thanks to my sister @LoujainHathloul you r able to perform in Saudi Arabia. I wish she can attend your concert. But she’s locked behind bars because she tried to improve women’s condition’.
There are also question marks of whether the Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), was involved in the murder of the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
The CIA believes MBS ‘most likely’ ordered the killing of the Saudi dissident at the country’s consulate in Istanbul last October.
‘Sportswashing’ was coined last year in relation to a planned tennis exhibition match in Jeddah last December between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who stood to earn £1m each. But the game never went ahead due to an injury to the Spaniard.
Saudi Minister of Sports Turki Al Sheikh made the announcement today, saying: ‘If God wills, you will see it this year in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’
Juventus and AC Milan also came under the pressure to call off the Italian ‘Supercoppa’ which was played in Jeddah earlier this month.
This week it was the turn of golfers to run a gauntlet of criticism when it emerged they were being paid $1m when the European Tour broke new and controversial ground in Saudi Arabia.
While Paul Casey decided not to take part on human rights grounds, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter did play.
Amnesty urged any sports stars invited to play in Saudi Arabia to use their fame to raise awareness of the horrific abuses that go on in the desert kingdom.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said:
‘Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority may well have plans to attempt to rebrand the Kingdom’s reputation, but we should not forget the cruelty that continues in the country.
Beckham is the latest star to be caught up in the ‘sportswashing’ furore. His spokesman refused to comment
‘Saudi Arabia is currently jailing and torturing dissidents and human rights defenders, is heavily involved in the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and homes in Yemen, and the spectre of Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder hangs over the entire Saudi government.
‘Countries like Saudi Arabia are well aware of the ‘sportswashing’ value of hosting major international entertainment and sporting events.
‘Any organisation or individual approached to take part should remember they will be part of the Saudi government’s relentless propaganda push. Instead, we would urge them to use their considerable public profile to raise awareness of important human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.’
A source close to Beckham said: ‘We’ve had no communication on this from the Saudi government.’