Fans, not players, are keeping gay footballers from revealing themselves

Fronting up: West Ham’s Matt Jarvis gives his backing to British gay footballers
Fronting up: West Ham’s Matt Jarvis gives his backing to British gay footballers

From Saturday’s paper:

The West Ham and England winger Matt Jarvis appears on the cover of this month’s Attitude, the gay magazine, topless and holding a football. Following David Beckham and Freddie Ljungberg, he’s the third footballer to do so. That is three times as many footballers in Britain as have come out as gay.

It is little short of a statistical certainty that there are several gay professional footballers in this country. Even by the lowest estimates, gay people make up about 1 per cent of the population; there are about 5,000 players in the English Football League alone. And yet, in the history of British football, there has only ever been one openly gay player, Justin Fashanu, and his story is a deeply sad one, ending with his suicide in 1998.

The situation is similar in Europe’s other top leagues. Something, it seems, is keeping homosexual footballers in the closet.

In that respect, football is unusual. Gay politicians, pop stars and actors – all of whom, like footballers, live their lives in the public eye – are now unremarkable. Even other sports have, it seems, a more welcoming attitude to gay players. Rugby, on the surface a far more macho affair than football, in which Alice bands and feigning injury are rare indeed, had a high-profile “coming out” in 2009: Wales’s most-capped player, Gareth Thomas.

In cricket, the Surrey and England wicketkeeper Steven Davies came out in 2011 in an interview with this paper. Both spoke movingly of the support they received from their team-mates. But no one has taken the same step in British football; in Europe, since Fashanu, only Anton Hysén, a Swedish third-division player, has come out while still playing.

What is behind this silence is not clear. It could be other players: Joey Barton, the philosophy-quoting former Queens Park Rangers midfielder, has spoken about football’s “archaic” attitudes towards gay people. But the likes of Barton, Beckham and Ljungberg clearly don’t share those attitudes. And other well-known footballers, including the Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard and Germany’s Philipp Lahm and Mario Gomez, have said that players would welcome a gay team-mate.

So could the problem lie with fans? An anonymous Premier League player, who writes the Guardian’s “Secret Footballer” column, once said that he thought he had been “only a Jägerbomb or two away” from a gay team-mate confiding in him. But, he asked, “would you come out and then travel around the country playing football in front of tens of thousands of people who hate you? I wouldn’t.” He quoted the vile homophobic abuse directed by some Tottenham Hotspur fans at their (straight) former player Sol Campbell.

If it is the attitude of fans that separates football from other sports, and keeps gay players from coming out, it is not because football fans are necessarily any more prejudiced against gay people than the population at large. It is because part of being a football fan is defining yourself against your rivals, in a far more heated and angry way than most other sports.

Whereas in rugby or cricket, fans of opposing teams mingle happily, football supporters are kept segregated, for fear of violence. This rivalry manifests itself in terrace “banter”, focusing on any available target: accusing managers of paedophilia, mocking players for marital problems. Part of football’s appeal is its unreconstructed, largely masculine, largely working-class attitudes. It is easy to imagine that a gay footballer would dread the reaction at away grounds were he to come out. Certainly, Fashanu suffered.

Will this change? Football has tackled other prejudices, to some degree. Racism was rife in football in the 1980s, with some managers thinking black players lacked “bottle” or tactical sense and therefore refusing to pick them. But, as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski said in their book Soccernomics, that didn’t last: while black players were undervalued, teams that bought them over-performed, and sheer market pressure meant that clubs simply couldn’t afford to be racist and stay competitive.

But precisely because gay players can remain hidden, there is no such market pressure. For all we know, gay men may be commonplace among Premier League football teams already. Instead the pressure is on the players. Campaigners are encouraging them to come out, but fear of fans’ reaction is pushing them to stay in. The Fashanu experience hardly sets an encouraging precedent. The actions of players such as Jarvis show that attitudes within football have changed, but out on the terraces, the need to abuse the opposition has not.


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