“I felt absolutely disgusted at this and I didn’t react because of my profile and I feared I might make the situation worse and cause problems [....] I felt totally victimised and helpless by the abuse I received on this day.” – Sol Campbell, Portsmouth FC, May 2009.
"Any discrimination towards people is and should be totally unacceptable, whether it is about skin colour, religion, sexuality etc. Homosexuals are in need of a hero.” Anders Lindegaard, Manchester Utd, November 2012
There are no openly gay professional footballers in the English game at present, and there has not been one for a very long time. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that gay footballers have no ‘heroes’ to inspire them – it just means they have to look a bit closer.
We are midway through the 2012/2013 football season and the fight to eradicate homophobia from the game has recently taken a few steps forward. Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard wrote on his Betfair blog that he feels football fans are “stuck in a time of intolerance” when it comes to the game’s supposedly ultimate taboo, and must work to align themselves with the more liberal and tolerant world around them. Coming from such a high-profile player, this simple statement is in itself a notable development – it’s not that Lindegaard’s fellow players disagree, it’s that they don’t say anything at all. Earlier this year, when Amal Fashnu tried to find a player from the Barclays Premier League to discuss the subject on her documentary Britain’s Gay Footballers, she seemed to hit a brick wall of silence. To credit a much maligned character, Joey Barton (then of Queens Park Rangers) was the most prominent figure willing to step up and offer his thoughts. The problem here is that in football – to quote Sir Alex Ferguson – “stigma does tend to stick”, and for that reason the subject of gay footballers has long been considered too toxic even for passing comment between high-level pros and the media. So a hearty slap on the back is due to Anders Lindegaard for making some headway, and also to Gareth Southgate, who has recently stuck his neck out in saying that a gay footballer would likely be accepted by fellow pros. This concept of waiting for a ‘hero’ to inspire gay footballers though, may be overlooking the possibility that entirely straight superstars of the game can, and already have, blazed a trail.
The background to this subject has been written about at length and is mostly rooted either in football’s past or another sport’s present. The tragic story of Justin Fashnu, the sport’s last openly gay player (see the aforementioned documentary), took place over twenty years ago and although some encouraging stories have arisen in other sports such as rugby and boxing, Premiership-era football is a different landscape altogether. That landscape though, may now be more prepared than ever to embrace a gay footballer. Over the past year, it’s racism that has been high on the agenda, with some hugely controversial incidents involving elite players. There is no need to detail these events here and now, but it’s fair to say that despite all the damage these cases have inflicted on the game, it has served to highlight just how abhorrent the British football fraternity and the British public consider racial intolerance to be. A similar attitude has been shown towards sexism in the game, with some very famous heads rolling as a result of some ill-judged comments made in the direction of a very competent female official. Earlier this season, several West Ham United fans were arrested for subjecting Tottenham Hotspur fans to anti-Semitic chanting – a much-debated form of terrace abuse that is not, by any means, a new phenomenon. The opposition to abusive behaviour in football has never been more resolute than it is now.
There’s another reason for optimism too. Research conducted recently by academics at the University of Staffordshire claims to have found that 90% of football fans say there is no place in football for homophobia, suggesting that the perception of football fans as abusive, ignorant, uncultured alpha-males is simply not reflected in the majority. The thing is, we knew that already, didn’t we? It’s not the majority that are the problem.
Lindegaard says: “as a footballer I think first and foremost that a homosexual colleague is afraid of the reception he could get from the fans.” This seems like a pretty fair point, but we must be careful about lumping all football fans into one category. In a headline in The Times this season, Arsene Wenger was paraphrased as saying “critics of my reign are only a loud minority”. Wenger’s comments and the article itself had nothing to do with gay footballers, but this phrase ‘loud minority’ is a useful one, because that’s where the problem lies. The truly vile chants that make the headlines never come from the majority of a club’s fans, but a Premiership stadium is a big place. Old Trafford for example holds upwards of 75,000 people. If the academics are correct and 90% of fans would be perfectly tolerant of a gay footballer, then the other 7,500 are still going to be pretty loud. Lindegaard says his impression is that “the players would not have a problem accepting a homosexual”, so it seems that the fear factor here is generated by this loud minority of fans.
When it comes to football fans (the louder ones in particular), two things come across as being absolute; firstly, the majority of fans will always stand by their star player, come what may. The recent John Terry fiasco has illustrated this well enough, and if the natural answer to this statement is “which one?” then that only serves to underline the point. Secondly, when they think they have some dirt on an opposing team’s player, some fans will grab hold of that thread and cling on to it for decades, even in the face of bona fide, legally verified, undisputable evidence that it’s not true. There is one terrace chant, utilised by fans who dislike Manchester United striker Robin Van Persie, that goes (to the tune of Artful Dodger – Rewind); “Van-per-sie. When the girl says no, molest her.” It relates to an allegation of rape made against Van Persie in his native Holland in 2005. The case was dismissed and never went to trial. He was completely cleared of all charges, but the loud minority never let the facts get in the way of a good sing-song.
This kind of fans ‘banter’ can get very nasty indeed, and this is where it becomes especially relevant to this discussion. The opening quote of this column is taken from a statement made by Sol Campbell, then of Portsmouth, after two Tottenham fans were arrested for subjecting him to homophobic abuse. Although there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Sol Campbell is gay, an idle rumour was enough for a loud minority of Tottenham fans to fashion this little ditty (and/or variations of it): “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be, you’re on the verge of lunacy. We don’t give a f**k if you’re hanging from a tree, you Judas c**t with HIV.” If there’s a more distasteful means of saying ‘we heard a rumour that you may be homosexual’ then it doesn’t spring easily to mind, and this appears to be the root of homosexuality’s status as football’s ‘last taboo’. Sol Campbell is generally considered to be a consummate professional and an outstanding centre-back, a vital member of the Arsenal ‘invincibles’ team of 2004 that marched to the Premier League title without losing a single game. Campbell endured some truly horrendous abuse from some Tottenham fans over the years (and from some fans of other clubs also), but he always kept his composure and was consistently excellent at the heart of the Arsenal, and later Portsmouth, defences. Another relevant factor here is that when Campbell moved across London from Tottenham to Arsenal, he knew he would suffer some serious abuse from Tottenham fans for the rest of his career. This move was a brave one, and without it his career would almost certainly have been far less distinguished. So this brings us back to Campbell’s statement and to the central question; what do we expect from the long awaited ‘hero’ that Lindegaard refers to? Are we looking for a ballsy and dignified elite pro who marches into the history books of the Premier League, in spite of the vile and homophobic abuse that is sometimes heaped on him along the way? If so, then Sol Campbell fits the bill. Does it matter that he’s not gay?
In fact, there is an even better fit for the ‘hero’ than big Sol – someone even more decorated and much less popular. In 2006, Chelsea defender Ashley Cole (who was then at Arsenal) successfully sued two tabloid newspapers after they alleged that he and a radio DJ were involved in a ‘gay orgy’, including references to a mobile phone being used as a sex toy. The apology printed in the now-defunct News of the World stated: “We are happy to make clear that Mr Cole and Masterstepz were not involved in any such activities”, which is a pretty succinct way of saying “It aint true. We lied.”. One would think that would be the end of it, but the loud minority of fans were unmoved. Not only do chants exist to this day that brand Cole a ‘rent boy’ but at the time some fans even went to the lengths of smuggling inflatable mobile phones into matches – an ominous throwback to the days when inflatable bananas were used to assist in calling black players ‘monkeys’. Among non-Chelsea fans, Ashley Cole is not a popular figure, for many different reasons that we won’t go into here. Some hold him up as an example of all that is despised about the overpaid, over-indulged Premiership pro, but there is one thing that few people dispute – Ashley Cole is, and has been for a decade, one of the very best left-backs in world football. Few players have taken as much abuse (some of it homophobic, some not) from the loud minority as Ashley Cole, and few have been so consistently excellent on the pitch either. He’s not gay, but why shouldn’t gay footballers be looking to Ashley Cole for inspiration?
There is only one footballer that has, at times, taken even more abuse than Ashley Cole, and he is very relevant to this discussion too. David Beckham; 1999 Champions League winner, June 2002 Attitude Magazine cover star. The glorious contradiction here is that the rabid, relentless, effigy-burning, death-threat-sending campaign of abuse that came David Beckham’s way did not come after he posed on the cover of a gay mag. No, it came long before that, after his ill-advised kick-out at Diego ‘who shot me?’ Simeone in the 1998 World Cup that may or may not have been the reason for England’s elimination by Argentina (although another perfectly good reason for said elimination was the ultra-harsh ruling out of a seemingly legitimate headed goal by that man Sol Campbell). Over the following few seasons, the loud minority told Beckham, repeatedly, in chorus, that his wife was a whore and that they hoped his son would get cancer. It’s worth noting here, with this example, that terrace abuse need not always be racist or homophobic to score a ten on the vile-o-meter. But, aside from one momentary lapse at Euro 2000 when he raised a middle finger to the crowd, there was never a moment when Beckham looked like it was affecting him, and his career since has gone on to be…well… he’s David Beckham. He has never shied away from the metrosexual image either and in 2007, Beckham told The Daily Mail “I’m very honoured to have the tag of gay icon”. If closeted gay footballers need a shining example of a world-class footballer just being himself and not giving two hoots about what the fans or the media say, then there’s your hero, right there.
If Lindegaard is correct in all he asserts about the current cultural backdrop of homophobia in elite British football – that the players are accepting but the fans may not be – then gay footballers can rest assured that a trail has been blazed by these (albeit straight) footballers who have had illustrious careers at the top level, despite being occasional targets for relentless fan abuse and homophobic taunts.
All of this does highlight one slightly uncomfortable connection though. To quickly refer back to the Staffordshire University research, Professor of Culture Ellis Cashmere said of the study: “Even fans who personally may not agree with homosexuality will respect it, as long as the player performs well on the field of play”. On one level this is a reassuring finding, but what about the inverse implication? Are we to understand that being gay in football is absolutely not okay if you don’t perform well on the field of play?
As much as it can be argued that closeted gay players can take inspiration from the resilience and dignity of Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and David Beckham, these are all elite players – highly decorated international footballers. And as we mentioned before with the recent John Terry debacle(s), fans will maintain loyalty to an excellent performer for their club, no matter how much that loyalty is tested. Indeed, football’s inherent meritocratic structure played a huge part in marginalising racism in the game during the pre-Premiership era. The implications may not be entirely reassuring, but history shows us that the tide of racist abuse in English football began receding somewhat faster once English clubs started producing and importing a significant amount of truly world-class black players. So even if we can glean a relative confidence that a top-level pro could reveal himself to be gay without significantly jeopardising his career, can we be so optimistic about those ranked lower in the pecking order? If Cashmere’s statement is correct, then what of the fringe players that sit languishing on the subs bench of a relegation-threatened team? Well, such a player can look to the select few at the top of the pyramid that have battled through the ‘gay’ stigma and excelled all the same. He can look to David Beckham and take heart in the fact that one of the Premiership’s seminal stars is a gay icon, but he may also conclude this thought process by thinking “Yeah, but…he’s David Beckham”.
Despite any recent setbacks, racism in football has long since come far enough that a player in the English game does not have to be an outstanding performer just to justify being black. Football is a little bit further behind on the homophobia timeline, but it will get there. The first step is for the ‘hero’ that Anders Lindegaard describes to make himself known, and when he does, he needn’t fear the wrath of the loud minority as though no player has endured the stigma before. The heroes are out there, they just don’t happen to be gay. And truth never mattered to the loud minority anyway.
This article originally appeared in A Different Scene.