This piece is something I was going to write a while back.
It all stems from a thought-stream that originated when I heard the rumour about Diego Forlán being gay and saw the reaction in South America.
Forlán had split up with his model fiancée Zaira Nara and there were rumours she was trying to sell the story of his sexuality to the highest bidder. Libre published quotes from an unidentified source, but one “absolutely irrefutable and very close to the couple” that the – at the time – Atlético player “could have cheated on his fiancée with another man“.
Forlán had long been nicknamed la rubia by his team-mates (the feminine form of ‘blondie’) but suddenly observers were using this as proof of his homosexuality. Being gay was even latterly used to explain his fallout with his coach at Atleti, his subsequently poor Copa America and why he has struggled at Inter, each time with no proof or an iota of credible reason, “a goalscorer like that can’t be a queer”, I remember reading – albeit in the comments section of a website.
Whether he was gay or not was no longer the question buzzing around in my head, instead it had got me thinking about how a major footballer over here would be received if they were indeed gay.
The Latin American culture is very different, where macho peacocking and rampant homophobia is a given. We have seen recently – when every Liverpool fan became an overnight linguistic expert on Rioplatense Spanish – how vital the context is within which events are lived out; and coming out of the closet where Forlán is from would be a far more difficult thing to do. Richarlyson, a Brazilian footballer who deserves at least 1000 words on his own amazing story, tried, and was scared out of it at the last minute. Though someone, somewhere, must lead the way.
In England, Justin Fashanu did that, and with tragic consequences.
The effect of this is undoubtedly still felt by the very fact that no footballer since has felt safe or comfortable to come out of the closet since.
I have, above, left out the example of Anton Hysen, an openly gay player in Sweden. Not to belittle his courage in coming out of the closet, but one of the major fears of the players must surely be crowd abuse, something still hurtful but far smaller in volume at the fourth division matches he plays in.
I will qualify my comment on crowd abuse being a major fear by referring you to the superinjunction granted to a footballer who claimed that he would be subjected to abuse in the workplace if news of his extra-marital affair came out. The superinjunction stands.
No matter what we do, the chants and songs from the crowds at a football match will always be part of the game. Hell, singing for my boys and then getting stuck into theirs one of the main reasons I go to games and have done for so long. I like nothing more than trying to wind up the opposition’s hot-headed striker, hoping they’ll lose their head and I will somehow contribute to my team’s win. I remember singing “who’s the midget in the dress” to volatile little forward Leon Knight, whose Brighton shirt was far too big for him, while I also remember a chorus of “freak” ringing out for Peter Crouch in 2004/05 – he got sent off.
But there are times when it goes beyond that (arguably quite fluid) line between ‘banter’ and abuse. I don’t think Crouch is a freak – I’m only a couple of inches shorter than him – but the songs aimed at Sol Campbell, for example, would certainly be enough to scare me off coming out of the closet, given the vitriol they are sung with, not to mention the lyrics. It’s safe to say that Sol (married with a child) is called far worse than a ‘poof’ or a ‘fairy’.
While we may wonder about the changing room reaction to a player coming out – the excellent Musa Okwonga here raises some other issues as to why a player would be reluctant to do so – I talked to a Surrey cricketer in the summer about the reaction to his teammate Steven Davies coming out and he said the guys couldn’t have been more supportive. Whether football would differ due to a more diverse range of nationalities is uncertain.
All of this came back to me, as I watched the documentary tonight about gay footballers in Britain.
Unfortunately, the programme will represent to me, a missed opportunity to really dig deep into the subject and perhaps, maybe, convince players that it would be feasible to be an openly gay footballer.
Possibly, given that it was broadcast on BBC Three, one could have guessed that it would not rival Panorama for investigative work and that may not have been their aim. The producers and commissioners may have decided that humanising it by having Amal Fashanu present a show largely about the legacy of her uncle, Justin, would be better viewing and we don’t have any point of comparison.
Unfortunately, the show seemed to be more about Amal’s journey than anything else, we saw her Mum helping her to unpack her new home and the obligatory appearance from Max Clifford but there was nothing new; no evidence that we had come closer to a footballer being openly gay, or more understanding of why.
Barely passing into ‘documentary’ territory, it was a missed opportunity to look into something that may be a hot issue every couple of years or so, but for some players, is a lifetime of secrecy. For these few(?), it is surely a question of humanity to for them to be open and happy in their daily lives without fearing abuse from the stands.
Football is, by its very nature, tribal: it’s one of the things we love about the game. But whilst this tribal aspect is something to be cherished – with its rivalries and its rawness – we must try to progress the attitudes from the prehistoric.