Tuesday 1 November 2011

Will football ever learn to accept homosexuality?

Modern football is, on the whole, a large melting pot. It's played in virtually every country worldwide, by all different kinds of people. If you look at the English Football League, you will find players of all colours, nationalities and creeds. Whites play alongside blacks, Catholics alongside Protestants, Muslims alongside Jews.

However, when it comes to sexuality, then the picture becomes very vague. In all ninety-two clubs of the Football League pyramid, there isn't a single openly gay player.

Statistically, about 6% of the UK population are gay or lesbian. Although it's not as simple as applying this statistic to football and assuming that 6% of all League players are gay, it still means that, in a sport where each team has 41 players on average on their books, not to have one gay player from a pool of nearly four thousand doesn't match up.

The unwillingness for gay players to come out is for a simple reason: football is steeped in homophobia. Many figures in the media, such as PR advisor Max Clifford - who claims to represent several gay footballers - and former Ireland footballer Tony Cascarino, believe a player's career would be ruined if he came out. He'd be singled out for abuse from the crowd, ostracised by his team-mates in the dressing room, bullied by the manager, and made subject of vicious gossip in the media.

There is a tragic precedent in Justin Fashanu, the only player in British football ever to come out. Even before he came out publicly, Brian Clough, who found out he was gay while at Forest, barred him from training with the first team, and condemned him for going to "bloody poof's clubs". Fellow professionals also castigated him, claiming a homosexual has no place in football, he was disowned by his own brother, and later on, accused of sexually assaulting a seventeen-year old in the US, which eventually led to Justin's suicide.

For all the problems British football has with homophobia, two things need to be considered: one is the culture of the sport itself within the country, and the other is the country's stance on homosexuality. Although football itself in the UK suffers from homophobia, our society, when compared to many other countries, is quite tolerant of the LGBT scene. Openly gay politicians exist (Peter Mandelson. Chris Bryant), as do media personalities (Stephen Fry), and even professionals in other sports. Gareth Thomas, one of Wales' greatest rugby players, came out in 2009, and the reaction to this was incredibly positive. Circulations such as Gay Times and Attitude are sold without problems, and the gay scene is thriving, with bars, clubs and Pride events operating and running smoothly.

Anton Hysen, only the second active high-level footballer ever to come out.

It may take several years, but I believe it's a matter of when, rather than if, a popular football figure in Britain, perhaps in the twilight of their career or retired from playing, decides to come out, which could very well set the ball rolling for the FA to relaunch the Kick Homophobia Out Of Football campaign (aborted because no player was willing to appear in it), to gradually change the zeitgeist of football fans, and to eventually convince many players, young and old, that being openly gay will not hinder their careers as footballers.

Now, the problem is convincing everyone on the international scene.

I believe the first active player to come out in the UK will be from a small team at the lower end of the Football League, because the media exposure won't be as great there. Initially, it may well garner interest from many countries, but it will die down quickly, just like the Anton Hysen story did, and because the fans of small clubs are usually tight-knit, almost a part of the club itself, it won't be a big deal for them - many may have even known it for a while already. Chances are they won't be playing in a European tournament, so all league and cup matches will be in England and Wales, where the FA and the League can monitor the games and promptly punish any instances of homophobic abuse.

Now, imagine if a first team player at a huge club like Manchester United, capped for his country, came out as gay. It would explode as global news and remain global news that would make front pages everywhere - including countries where homosexuality is reviled or forbidden. In eighty countries worldwide - around two fifths of the world - it's against the law. Seventy-two of those punish consenting adults with inprisonment, while five, including regional footballing powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, have the death penalty. Would the player be issued with an arrest warrant upon touching down at the airport for an away game or international tournament? How viciously would the player be abused, verbally or even physically, by large groups of fans who may view him as sub-human or as an enemy of God? And what punishment would the likes of UEFA and FIFA, whose very own president Sepp Blatter advised gay football fans to "refrain from any sexual activity" at the Qatar 2022 World Cup (where homosexuality is illegal), administer to clubs and associations whose fans are guilty of homophobic abuse?

The customs and laws of certain countries, and subsequent reactions of its leaders and subjects, prove to be a strong enough deterrent against coming out, but even in countries and regions where things are generally more liberal, the football world manages to keep a high level of animosity and hatred towards homosexuals. If a major player or manager made a racist comment, they would be condemned by virtually everybody in the industry, and rightly so, but important, respected individuals, from players to managers to directors, regularly criticise homosexuals, and get away with it.

Quotes include: "A bunch of faggots is what you have in French football. There are so many homosexual players there, they always provoke you, they touch your thighs, your bum, to see if you will give some kind of signal", which was the reason given by former Argentina international Eduardo Berizzo for leaving Olympique Marseille in 2000, while in 2002, Brazil World Cup winning manager Luis Felipe Scolari said: “If I found out that one of my players was gay I would throw him off the team.” Steaua Bucharest owner and Romanian MEP Gigi Becali, stated in 2007 that if he became president of Romania, he would "get rid of all homosexual and lesbian clubs, and create special neighbourhoods for homosexuals and lesbians, so that they can stay there and leave us [alone]", while Croatian Football Federation president Vlatko Markovic declared in 2010: "while I'm... president of the Croatian Football Federation, there will be no homosexuals playing in the national team". Again, criticism didn't come from the footballing authorities, rather from gay rights groups.

The FA's Kick Homophobia Out Of Football video. This campaign was aborted because no player could be found to support it.

And aside from the player's wellbeing and safety being potentially affected, coming out would impact the player's and the club's marketability. While the likes of Macclesfield Town aren't looking to sell shirts abroad, the likes of Man Utd or Chelsea are, and any mass boycott of a club's merchandise or tickets in a lucrative country where homosexuality is illegal, because of one of the club's players coming out, would severely impact their income and their reputation, leaving other clubs open to exploit the market in their place.

Disgraceful as the above sounds, football is an international business where reputation is key - witness how many top clubs speak of being "brands" and just how much merchandise they have out - and bearing in mind how prejudist and close-minded the marketing industry is, and how breaching sponsorships is seen as a bigger issue than racism (from the Observer's Said and Done column from Dec 12 2004: "£6,769 - Real Madrid's fine for racist chanting and Nazi salutes during their Champions League match with Bayer Leverkusen. £34,500 - Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires' fine for wearing the wrong sponsored T-shirt on French television in October."), it wouldn't be surprising if gay players at top clubs were forced to keep their sexuality hidden until, at best, well after leaving the club.

Charlie Brooker exposes just how cynical the marketing and advertising industry is.

How could we expect a young, lone player to come out against such a torrent of hatred, ridicule and vitriol?

Because football is a global sport, it reins in all cultures and viewpoints of the world, which is a joy to witness, but unfortunately, it's the most bigoted aspects which cause the most noise and disturbance. This, combined with indifference from the establishment, and a desire for chairmen, directors and owners for whom their "team" is actually just a "brand", to carry on cynically targeting those markets where institutional homophobia is rife, at the expense of the wellbeing of one of their own players, render world football a very inhospitable arena for the LGBT community.

Gareth Thomas' homosexuality has been widely accepted and respected. Would this happen in football?

The key to combat this is to ensure that every aspect of British football, from the suits in charge of the establishment, to the international clubs who contest for the top trophies and target overseas markets, all the way down to the Sunday leagues and the fans and spectators, stamps out homophobia in the way racism has been, to the point where any displays of abusive behavour are swiftly condemned by all, and openly gay players become another ingredient in our melting pot, regardless of pressure and ridicule from the outside. And if we can then convince the likes of UEFA and FIFA to also condemn homophobia across the whole game and toughen their stance on all forms of abusive behaviour, including suspension from competitions, then we may be able to ensure a safe playing environment and private life for any footballers who just so happen to love members of the same sex.

It is such a shame regarding the current state of affairs because football, in its purest form, the game itself, doesn't have a sexuality. It doesn't hold any prejudice. It doesn't discriminate. The problem is, those involved in it do.

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