Football fans revel in the ‘beautiful game’ moniker, as if it alone confers some sort of superiority over other sports. Indeed, the reasons for the game’s popularity are manifest: nothing in the world has to power to unite, divide, encourage and inspire like football does. Hundreds of thousands of weekends hang in the balance based on one seemingly insignificant result: that 89th minute half chance can determine whether the weekly trip to Spoons is in sorrow or mirth, the workplace bragging rights on Monday, whilst for the players, cult hero status can be won or lost in a second. But beneath the facades of a perfect Saturday, deep in the periphery, lurks a latent force that whilst never overt in its expression, is ingrained into almost all aspects of the game, from the terraces to the changing rooms: homophobia.
Without delving into the mathematical minutiae of the situation, considering the amount of players that have played in the Premier League since its inception, it seems fair to conclude that there have been a fair amount of homosexual players, at least numbering past 50. Yet there has been one openly homosexual player (open at the time of his playing) in the top flight, Justin Fashanu: after the abuse and ostracisation he suffered following his coming out, he eventually took his own life. Thus, whilst precedent has been set, it is not exactly an encouraging one. With this being said, there have been signs of recent encouragement, with some relatively high profile players coming out – Thomas Hitzlsperger, he of the left foot piledriver, an example. In light of this, it would be easy to construct a false narrative of progress, as if the prejudices of the game are slowly melting away.
But the timing of this announcement is revealing in itself, postdating the players’ retirement (similarly with Robbie Rogers who announced his retirement simultaneously with his homosexuality, though indeed he is now playing again.) One wonders whether this reticence of players, if they come out at all, to speak during their playing careers is testament to the attitudes located within a club, in its dressing rooms and backrooms, or on the terraces alone. There is some evidence to the former – even within the most enlightened corners of football there is a dangerous atavism to some of its attitudes – just look at Filipe Luiz Scolari, or as he is endearingly known, ‘Big Phil’: If I found out a player was gay, I would throw them off the team.’
Whilst instances of these sort of comments (high-profile figures being explictly homophobic) appear to be relatively few and far between, perhaps within this outdated perception of team-spirit, sexuality in itself is seen to be a taboo subject, and homosexuality in particular incompatible with the idea of a shared bond and a shared dressing room.
But surely, considering the volume of football fans on the terrace week-in, week-out, it is the inherently masculine atmosphere of these stadiums which proves the most insurmountable object to future progress. At least the prejudices of the players, managers and chairmen have to operate for the most part latently, within the constraints of the FA and its admittedly flawed penal structure. But the terraces, particularly those at the lower levels, are subject to no such confines. Take the chants directed at Brighton fans for example (with the club an easy target considering the demographic of its city.) Whilst these might seem to be harmless terrace high-jinks: ‘We can see you holding hands’ etc, they also speak to deeply ingrained attitudes where this comment is made with no awareness of its offensiveness and the marginalisation of non-heterenormative groups within the game it perpetuates.
The question becomes therefore, how to change these preexisting attitudes and make football inclusive to all. There is no easy answer, after all, homophobia and suchlike seem to remain more in sporting communities than others, suggesting failure in the previous measures designed to combat it. However, a fundamental rethinking of grassroots education, and using more high-profile ‘role-models’ to set an example must surely count among the first steps if English football is truly to embody its claim to ‘the beautiful game.’
PHOTO 1/ Noah Salzman
PHOTO 2/Henry Eghed