This series of features aims to explore the “beautiful game” of football and discuss the aspects you perhaps don’t hear about too often. The underbelly of the world’s game, the things that need addressing for it to truly deserve its beautiful nickname in three parts.
This edition of The “Beautiful” Game will highlight the struggles behind arguably football’s largest remaining taboo. Something so institutionally buried that not a single professional today feels comfortable discussing it, homosexuality.
“Nancy boy”, “poof”, “fa**ot”, “homo” etc, are all Derogatory phrases you don’t see often anymore if you aren’t routinely surrounding yourself with the Westboro Baptist Church. However, there does seem to be a major holdout in the United Kingdom where this language remains a huge part of the mass vocabulary. Football. Terms like these can be heard across the country on a near weekly basis, at almost every ground in the country. From rusted, aging stands in Plymouth to weary, old stands in Partick Thistle, you probably won’t have to strain your ears too hard to hear somebody using one or more of these terms.
Football has lived so far in the past on this subject that it’s almost funny to think about. Not to say that everyday society was accepting of homosexuality at all at that point, but the issue was at least present.
Justin Fashanu’s scandalous coming out in the Sun newspaper in 1990 came eleven years after YMCA topped the UK charts. 18 years after the UK’s first Gay pride, six years removed from the country’s first homosexual MP only one year before Gay icon Freddy Mercury died of AIDS.
Why did football watch on as all of these LGBT milestones passed by, celebrations of human life? For years when it comes to LGBT representation football was and has been stuck in a prolonged stasis, stuck in time like the creature in a cheap Sci-Fi movie, ready to awaken and wreak havoc on the nearby teenagers. It is like if Disney had remained in their racist crow/black face characters faze from the 1940’s and were acting the same in the 70’s. When will somebody come along to blow the dust-off footballs old, decrepit opinions?
In the history of English professional football one player has ever come out as a homosexual while actively playing, Justin Fashanu, a former Nottingham Forest, £1 million striker came out as gay in 1990 during a time where being a homosexual was seen by the public rather more negatively than it is today.
His coming out was seen in a massively negative light, his choosing to come out even had a massive impact upon his football career, once rumours of Fashanu’s visits to gay might clubs started to be banded around, Justin’s relationship with his manager at the time Brian Clough began to badly deteriorate and he was barred from training with his Nottingham Forest teammates. Clough, in his autobiography recalled one encounter with Justin Fashanu on the subject. “”‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”‘
20 years since Justin’s death and still no player has felt truly comfortable following his lead and coming out as well.
Ed Connell, the chair of the Gay Footballers Supporters Network. The group who runs the world’s only LGBT football believes that the experience Justin Fashanu had may have had positive and negative results for the game. “his story certainly alerted people to the fact that there are gay players in professional football but he negative reaction to his story probably meant that others would have been more reluctant to follow his path.
Ed goes on to discuss the main reasons he believes footballers don’t wish to come out. “The fear about the reaction of the fans and the media. Football fans can be harsh, picking up on any perceived weaknesses and I would imagine that players would be fearful of the chants from the terraces. There is still a witch hunt amongst some aspects of the media as they try to find out who is gay. I can’t imagine many people relish the idea of having such intrusions into their lives.”
Since Justin Fashanu’s coming out, likely the highest profile player to come out as gay is German international and former West Ham and Aston Villa Premier League player Thomas Hitzlsperger, he came out as gay in 2014, a year after his retirement from the game, shortly after splitting with his fiancee.
Luke Tuffs, one of the United Kingdom’s only homosexual football players at any level feels that gay players don’t feel comfortable coming out because of the risk it could place upon their careers, “there are people out at the semi pro game but nobody’s out in the pro game, what’s the difference. The PFA, all the football clubs, the PL they’re all doing a lot of very good work for LGBT people, sure they can carry on, sure there’s more they can do but I actually think they make a good effort and the players still aren’t having it.”
“In my opinion they’re not worried about their teammates or even the general public, if you know the stats for how many football players get a professional contract, it’s very low, if you come out and if there’s one club looking at you and the chairmen or manager of that club is homophobic, even if they don’t say it publicly , then that’s you out of a contract. Coaching is the same, if I go for a job at a pro club and the academy manager might be homophobic, there is that danger in pro circles, that’s your mortgage, that’s your living. Whereas lower down it’s not your only income.”
If you look at all the players who’ve come out it’s after they’ve retired so when it no longer affected them if they have a club or not.”
Homophobic abuse remains part and parcel of the terraces in football around the world. Every week fans will chant something at players, referees or opposition fans that can be seen as homophobic. Additionally, much like the racist abuse highlighted in The “Beautiful Game” Racism, footballs great unwinnable battle? homophobic abuse hasn’t stuck to the terraces, homophobic abuse on social media is alarmingly very common.
In a twitter exchange from July this year, Hashtag United, a massively popular football club, with a huge online following was a part of a twitter exchange with a user who criticised the admin of the club for acknowledging and reporting homophobic abuse. They go on to state that “You’re (Hashtag United) a big account, people are going to abuse, they seek a reaction which you are giving. If you get abuse just ignore it. Simple. You are actually giving them the satisfaction they want.”
Additionally, in August 2016. Current Watford (then Burnley) striker Andre Grey was forced to apologise after tweets resurfaced from a few years prior where Watford’s 18.5m signing appears to condone the killing of gay people.
His tweet, since deleted said “Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #Burn #Die #Makesmesick”. Off the back of the incident and huge public outrage Andre Gray was handed a four-match ban. He also released a statement on his Twitter account where he says he has grown as an adult since then.
Women’s football has been growing exponentially by the year over the last ten-fifteen years ago. From it being a tiny off-shoot of the men’s game to now, every Premier League team has a women’s team. Following Manchester United Women’s formation earlier this summer.
One aspect that the women’s game unquestionably trounces the men’s is its diversity of sexualities. Homosexuality has always been an accepted part of the women’s game. Notable top-level professionals have come out with little to no resistance. England internationals Casey Stoney and Lianne Sanderson are well known in the game to be gay and nobody seems to care, why is this? Why is the women’s game so much more accepting than the men’s? Luke Tuff looks at the people running the game for the cause.
“Look at the top of the men’s game and who runs it, it’s still run by old men and so with that they harbour old views, in time I think this will all change but it’s still run by old men, the managers are all old men this and that. The women’s game is relatively a young sport so with it has a relatively young culture.
The women’s game has only evolved the last 10/15 years…the women’s game, coaches, managers and that, they’re young people, they’re out of university, they’re this, they’re that. It’s a totally different environment, again, until recently it was a part time game, the girls had other jobs so there wasn’t that pressure of losing their jobs. “
Earlier this summer a draft bill was put to parliament by Conservative MP Damian Collins to make “chanting or gesturing of an indecent nature with reference to sexual orientation or gender identity” illegal.
In a statement made at the time Collins said “When the Football Offences Act came into force, it made racalist abuse within football stadia illegal.
“The proposed amendment, which I will present to the House of Commons, seeks to extend that legal protection to LGBT+ players and fans.”
It is clear to see that steps are being made to try to combat homophobic abuse from all areas and should the bill go through we can hope that the future generations could attend football matches entirely devoid of homophobic terminology. https://twitter.com/gaygooners/status/1021052026900361216
Ed Connell who has dedicated a large share of his adult life for LGBT inclusion in football. He played and managed London Titans FC for over 10 years, he’s vice chair of the London FA Inclusion Advisory Group and sits as a panel member on disciplinary hearings for the London FA in cases involving discrimination.
He sees hope in the future of homophobia in the game. “Yes, I believe so, but we need to be realistic. We have been tackling racism in the game for over 25 years and it hasn’t yet been eradicated so it is naïve to think that homophobia will be eradicated any quicker.
Ed believes that to achieve this football at grass-roots and professional levels needs to improve one key aspect. “Education, education, education. This needs to happen at all levels of the game from grass roots through to the professional game. Other areas have embraced the strength to be found in diversity and the football must do the same. The message is simple, issues of sexuality are irrelevant, there is strength in diversity and we must learn to be more tolerant.”