EuropeChris LedgerComment

Untackling Homophobia in European Football

EuropeChris LedgerComment

Chris Ledger on just how far our game still has to go.

The broadcaster Mark Chapman once said that homophobia is football’s last taboo. The truth in his words has been evidenced by two recent controversial incidents in the European game.

The president of the Croatian Football Federation, Vlatko Markovi, said that homosexuals are not permitted to play for the national side, mirroring comments made by former Croatia manager Otto Baric in 2004. Villarreal striker Giuseppe Rossi was also criticised for using the word “homo” on Twitter and, like Markovi, he apologised for his comments. The biggest concern, though, is that such an apology in other European countries would be seen as a major breakthrough in tackling homophobia.

Take Armenia; a country that’s shown strong economic growth, reduced poverty and migration levels, and improved international relations. For a nation that’s seen as relatively stable when compared with other former Soviet republics, their inability to accept homosexuality is a cause for concern. Over 35% of gay Armenians are still closeted, for example, showing that gay representation in Armenian culture is minimal.

The hostility towards homosexuality in Armenia is striking. A 2009 study by the human rights group ILGA Europe explained that only 4% of its population are accepting of it and 86.5% of people would not want a gay neighbour; a figure far higher than the 43.6% who would not want a neighbour, who is of an ethnic minority. In addition, police intimidation and incorrect diagnosis of schizophrenia are situations that LGBT Armenians regularly find themselves in.

Homophobia is even more extreme in traditionally masculine institutions, such as the army. LGBT Armenians are often seen as unfit for military service and, even if they are accepted, are often given their own separate set of plates and forced to live in toilets. The abuse that a gay footballer, coach or supporter would face if they came out in Armenia would be unthinkable.

This frightening prospect is made even worse by the absence of Armenian legislation for those who are gay. Although homosexuality was only legalised in 2003, they have no adoption and inheritance rights. More crucially, for the football industry, there is no specific employment and discrimination protection for homosexuals, nor is there any protection for hate crime and speech. An LGBT person involved in Armenian football could be sacked, or face abuse on and off the pitch, without the right to legal recourse.

The Armenian media rarely touches upon these problems. If there is any media coverage, it is likely to be used as satire, to assume that they are mentally deranged or to view homosexuality as criminality. As there are no gay magazines or any radio and television programmes aimed at a LGBT audience, there is limited scope to raise the issue of homophobia in Armenian football.

Furthermore, the British Council of Armenia sponsors a homophobic radio station in Yerevan and the video for ‘I Love Armenia’ by VO.X was criticised by LGBT campaigners for its homophobic imagery. Imagine the outrage in the British press if Adrian Chiles made such a jibe on ITV. That kind of verbal abuse is likely to be applauded in Armenia.

The progress made in tackling homophobia in European football has been small. Last month’s FARE week against Racism and Discrimination typifies this. Whilst over 40 countries were involved, with over 200 events organised, only six places (Austria, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Slovenia and the United Kingdom) held events which explored homophobia. Although it was expected that the campaign would revolve around racism – as it was run by Football Against Racism in Europe – the number of events that chose to focus on poverty and gender equality over homophobia was disappointing.

Armenia’s contribution to this campaign, for instance, was based on the idea of welcoming ethnic minorities to their Euro 2012 qualifiers against Andorra and Slovakia. Despite German lectures on this summer’s Gay Games and how homophobia in football remains a taboo subject, and a Slovenian football tournament involving LGBT players, the troubling fact remains that only one of the 24 events held in Austria was related to LGBT issues.

This lack of proactivity is even more disappointing, as leading figures in other sports seem more comfortable with the idea of tackling homophobia. Neil Balme, Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel and Adam Goodes from the Australian Football League, for example, supported this year’s International Day Against Homophobia; a real stepping stone for a country that has had problems with homophobia, in the past.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that there are numerous other examples of homophobia in European football. Gay referee Halil Ibrahim Dincdag had his licence revoked by the Turkish FA in June 2009 and an amateur footballer was denied registration to play for the French side FC Chooz in September for being gay- because of potential friction with his team-mates. The homosexual Nigerian footballer, Cletus U, has also faced problems as he was deported after being refused asylum in Austria, back in July.

UEFA could also be accused of taking little action to combat homophobia, as it took them two years to fine Baric for his comments and action has not yet been taken against Markovi. Neither UEFA nor the English FA also took action over the alleged homophobic comments made by Paul Scholes, in a 2006 Champions League match. Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez’s recent comments that gay footballers should come out were welcoming, but homophobia in European football still occurs too frequently.

It is in Britain, despite Scholes’ outburst, where substantial efforts have been made to reduce these problems. LGBT football sides like Village Manchester, Brighton Bandits and London Titans have been accepted by the footballing community, and The Justin Campaign’s Football versus Homophobia event is set to be run annually. Due to this, Britain has become the exception to the norm- even if more work needs to be done before we can expect another British footballer comes out of the closet.

The fact that the UK – the birthplace of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s only openly gay professional footballer, who committed suicide in 1998 – is far more open to the idea of homosexuality in football, than many other European countries, says it all. It’s an exceptionally depressing thought.

As well as writing for IBWM, Chris is the editor of the outstanding Obscure music and football blog. You can follow him on Twitter @obscurefootball