In a month dominated by controversy surrounding allegations of racism in football, one man has taken a brave and public stand against another of the game’s great taboos.
Earlier this month, David Testo told the world that he was gay. It took the American until he was 30 to feel comfortable enough to come out of the closet having finally come to terms with his own sexuality as all gay men must.
Testo’s occupation undoubtedly made the process all the more difficult. The North Carolina native is a footballer who has played for Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact in the NASL.
Before he made his shock statement on CBC Radio-Canada, Testo led a fairly low profile life. Now he’s been thrust into the limelight as one of the rarest of all things – an active and openly gay professional athlete.
Before Testo there was only one publically gay footballer playing anywhere in the world. That was Anton Hysen, a 20 year old winger active in the Swedish fourth division. In 2005, government figures estimated that there were around 3.6m homosexuals in Britain alone (roughly 6% of the population). That’s one in every 16.66 people.
Can football really be so completely devoid of gay players? The answer is of course no, the problem is so few will openly admit that they’re gay. Homophobia in football is deeply embedded and accepted as another manifestation of the machismo associated with the game. Football must do more to tackle the problem.
The Testo story didn’t really make an impact in the press on this side of the Atlantic who were busy (rightly) taking Sepp Blatter to task for his comments denying the existence of racism on the pitch. English football has been a world leader in tackling racial discrimination on the terraces and on the field but its record in dealing with homophobia isn’t quite as impressive.
Ben Summerskill, Chief Executive of the gay rights charity Stonewall has said: “Too little action has been taken about an issue which deters not just gay players and fans from enjoying our national game, but also thousands of other fans too. Football has a firm track record tackling problems such as hooliganism and racism. But anti-gay abuse still almost always goes unchallenged.”
The player who has probably spoken most eloquently on the subject isn’t even gay. Graeme Le Saux is married with two children but was dogged by homophobic abuse for much of his career. The left-back, capped 36 times by England enjoys travelling to destinations slightly removed from the beaten track and was once seen with a copy of the Guardian. That was seemingly enough to condemn him to more than a decade of abuse.
Once the rumours were out it wasn’t just fans who taunted him but teammates and opponents too. In his autobiography he wrote:
"I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors."
Then there was that much publicised spat with Robbie Fowler in 1999 when Le Saux lost his cool after Liverpool’s Fowler repeatedly bent over and made crude gestures in front of the then Chelsea defender.
“That really was the point at which it couldn't get any worse. It wasn't just people singing on the terrace, it was a colleague -- an international colleague -- humiliating you in front of all those people, an international audience. He will maintain to this day that it was just a laugh but that is exactly the point,” he told CNN in 2008.
In the intervening 12 years a growing feeling has emerged that something must be done. Kick It Out, the anti racism campaign has started to look at the issue seriously and Paul Elliott, one of their most passionate spokesmen has called homophobia “the next big thing for us to tackle.”
Last year the FA recorded a video designed to dissuade fans from making homophobic comments but reports suggested several high profile footballers refused to appear, fearing that they would become a target for abuse in the same way Le Saux had.
With straight players so averse to speaking out its little wonder so few gay players have done so. The publicist Max Clifford has gone on record stating that he has represented two Premier League players who are both gay and advised them to stay in the closet due to the negative effect he believes the revelation would have on a player's career.
Clifford’s policy is bad for the game. Football is in desperate need of a high profile, successful gay player if the sport is to drag itself into the 21st century. To lead the way again, the Premier League needs a Gareth Thomas or Steven Davies, players widely accepted by rugby and cricket respectively because their talent, dignity and professionalism have overridden any concerns about their sexuality that fans or teammates may harbour.
Football is still scarred by the suicide of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first openly gay player in 1998. His tragic fall into obscurity, later public controversy and finally his premature death left a terrifying precedent for players and administrators. Lessons can and must be learned from Fashanu’s story but football wasn’t solely to blame for his sad demise and must realise that almost 14 years on, society has changed.
America is a society which in many ways remains far more socially conservative than our own but early reports suggest that Testo has found plenty of support for his decision. His former Montreal Impact teammate and captain Nevio Pizzolitto told the Montreal Gazette:
“I’m sure it was something that weighed on his mind for a long time, which is why I think he finally came out with it.”
“I’m glad he did, because he’s in a position where he can inspire a lot of people to do the same.”
It may have been a small step, but thanks to David Testo football is a little bit closer to truly becoming a game for all.
Mark can be found on Twitter @markleeelliott.