Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Why Are There No Gay Footballers?

by Joshua Surtees

My ex-girlfriend physically despises professional organised sports. Apart from figure skating. But then, she is Canadian. And Canadians notoriously have difficulty understanding any sport that doesn’t involve ice. Or snow. Or both.
Above all sports, however, she had a particular dislike for football (or “sah-kerr” to use her North American terminology). The instant football came on the TV she would magically produce a book or magazine and start reading, steadfastly refusing to glance at the screen even for a millisecond. Unless of course Cristiano Ronaldo was playing. She liked CR9. Although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his sporting prowess she was admiring.

Other than Ronaldo, the only other aspect of association football that fascinated my ex was the inherent homoeroticism of the game. She would point out homoerotic aspects which many ‘sah-kerr’ fans choose to ignore but, when examined, are clearly present. E.g. that 60,000 men (and football crowds still are 90% male) crammed into a stadium very close to each other watching 22 men run around in tight shorts, mimicking the players’ kisses, cuddles and embraces that follow each goal, is quite a ‘gay’ thing to do. Bear in mind she is a staunch supporter of gay rights and has more gay friends than any other straight person I know. Her point was that the majority of the men doing these ‘gay’ things at football matches are, generally, rather homophobic. The beautiful irony she saw in fat, unfashionable, largely illiterate, straight men getting “all homosexual” with each other was hilarious to her. “Are you off to the game now to be gay with your friends and all the other guys?” she would goad. “It’s not gay,” I would respond, “it’s what’s known as male bonding. It’s about as non-gay an activity as you can get”. But I was only fooling myself. It is gay. It’s very, very gay.

The question she would ask me about football, above all others, was: why are there no gay footballers? This ponder is dedicated to her musing…

So, why are there no gay footballers? And I do literally mean none. The only footballer in the entire history of the world game to come out publicly was Justin Fashanu in 1990. Upon coming out he was instantly mocked and reviled by supporters, even disowned by his own brother, the cretinous John Fashanu. Sadly, Justin Fashanu, a talented footballer in his mid-80’s prime, took his own life in 1998. As a black man, having put up with years of racism within the game, he became unable to deal with the homophobia, the general turbulence of his life, the taunts of managers, fans and players and an unfounded sexual assault claim filed against him by a teenaged boy he coached in the US.

Other than Fashanu, no footballer has ever admitted being gay. Marcello Lippi last year claimed there are no gay players in the game. Now, in a sport played by 250,000 people world wide, around a quarter of whom are professionals, it’s simply not possible for them all to be straight. That’s just a question of simple logic. Some, perhaps as many as 10%, must be gay. If they are, then it’s very sad they have to live in the closet through fear of what might happen if they were public about it. Sadly, such fears are well founded. Football in many ways is still truly a philistine sport.

To put homophobia in football in context; within very recent memory in the UK, loud open, vitriolic racism was heard at nearly any game you went to. In some places it still exists: Millwall, Oldham, Stoke, Burnley, Leeds or Cardiff to name a few. You will still hear racist abuse at all of these places. In Italy and Spain racism is commonplace and barely questioned, even by the authorities. Given this fact, you are probably able to imagine what attitudes to gay people are like. Homophobic abuse is already directed at players who are not openly gay but simply suspected of being so. Or even just because they read books! Graeme Le Saux, an intelligent former player and league title winner, was one such player subjected to taunts. Sol Campbell is another. “Have you ever seen Campbell with a bird? Have you fuck.” they sing at him. And far far worse things I’d rather not repeat here.

While anti-racist policies such as the FA’s Kick It Out have been in place for a while, the intolerance of homosexuality in football circles is only just beginning to be challenged at an official level. The FA has a Homophobia In Football working group. Shamefully, professional clubs are neglecting to support its aims.

Other sports have featured openly gay players. Rugby, with the recent example of Gareth Thomas, basketball player John Amaechi in the US, even the ultra-macho, Irish sport of Hurling recently had a gay revelation in the form of star player Dónal Óg Cusack.

So, what is football’s problem? Clearly one can accept the culture of football is decisively masculine, aggressive and centred around male posturing. But I don’t see that this stops a player from coming out. Gay men can be just as masculine, aggressive and posturing as straight ones. The question is: why would they choose to expose themselves to the hatred by disclosing their orientation? The hatred would not necessarily come from fellow players. David James, Portsmouth and England goalkeeper, demonstrates this, writing rather eloquently here about his hope for a gay player to come out.

And yet, to come out in the Premiership in England would take a huge amount of bravery. PR guru Max Clifford believes there are gay footballers out there who are too scared to come forward. But somebody will have to take the first step. While initial reactions may be harsh, I feel that if a strong role model gay figure was to emerge, somebody with the equivalent status to a David Beckham or Wayne Rooney, the bully boys and homophobes in the crowd could be silenced. All human rights campaigns require trailblazers, groundbreakers and martyrs. Gay football already has its martyr, Justin Fashanu. Let us hope there will be no more martyrdom but at the same time let us hope that one day somebody will emerge with the courage and conviction to cope with the stress and to change footballing attitudes, just as Clyde Best, Brendan Batson, Cyril Regis, Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham did for black players and fans in the 70s.

There are gay men involved in some ways with football. Elton John owned Watford FC in the 1980s. Matt Lucas is an Arsenal season ticket holder regularly seen at games. It would, however, be a giant step forward into the 21st century, if an actual player or indeed manager, intimately connected to the sport came out. One day it will happen. Maybe not necessarily in the UK. Maybe in Holland, Germany, Sweden; places with more forward-thinking, European attitudes. Not that homophobia in the UK is generally a huge problem. Historically we are one of the most tolerant and supportive countries when it comes to gay rights. It’s just such a shame our tolerance and support does not extend to our national sport.


  1. I have little doubt up to 5% of professional footballers playing in the UK league are
    gay. (A smidgen under the estimated/predicted population of gay males in the UK)

    However if Simon Cowell cannot come out (despite reliable info that he is
    definitely gay) What chance has a footballer of coming out (where the audiences are
    excessively heterosexual, or at least posture to be) Where crowds make up anti gay songs
    about players even where there lies no evidence that those they are taunting are gay.

    I fear more Justin Fashanu type instances would inevitably follow. We are unfortunately many years away from players coming out. Footballers are akin to popstars in the UK. In the pop world they lose sales volumes, as teenage girls with crushes realise their idol is gay. And their fantasies of 'being' with their hero evaporates. In the football
    world, it would be far worse. They would be subjected to the cruellest possible
    taunts week in and week out. A career ending and possibly life ending choice that no
    gay footballer would want to make.

  2. Speaking as someone who has played on a team with a gay team-mate, and who I have talked to about this subject, I might have a suggestion for this. You say that as there are so many footballers, and 1 in 10 people are gay, that means there should be loads of gay footballers. You're calling the laws of averages into effect, but the laws of averages only apply when there are no external factors in play and when you concentrate on macro-scale-societies, as opposed to small pockets of society. Footballers are a small pocket of society as a whole. E.g. if there are 7 billion people on the earth, and 1.3 billion are Chinese, that means 1 in every 5-6 people on earth are Chinese. Ireland has 4.2 million people, but how many Chinese people live in Ireland? Estimates put the figure at 3,000. Why? Outside factors have had an effect. i.e. China is far away and there aren't many jobs in Ireland; a main reason for emigration and re-settlement. In the same way, there are other factors that affect how so few gay people become footballers.

    On one of the 3 teams I currently play for, one of the footballers is gay, and I asked him about it, and came to the following conclusion. In the whole of history, there has never been a footballer, ever, who has made it on talent alone. Every single footballer has to spend years, from the age of 6 years old honing their craft. As football is a team game, that means spending all day with young people of the same age, playing football. The gay teammate I mentioned loved football when he was young, but teenager it was obvious to his classmates he was gay and he was taunted for it.
    As a 26 year old I am sure his sexuality wouldn't be a factor. This put my team-mate off football between the ages of 11-18, when at Uni he met people who didn't taunt his sexuality, any chance he had to making the professional grade were gone, never to return. This guy has a great first touch, agility, pace, stamina, but his footballing brain is non-existent.

    Attributes ingrained in footballers through years of playing, like a language, are harder to learn when you get older. They are things you do not think about, but come through second nature. Take Enfield Town, even though they’re good footballers, their greatest attribute is pace, power, strength, passing, shooting. Look at George Best, Ronaldo, Bergkamp, Henry, their greatest attribute is their brain. They can react quickly not because they are trained but because their brain has been so developed and fine-tuned it is second nature.

    This probably goes a long way to explain the lack of professional footballers who are openly gay. Whilst growing up, talented footballers will be under more pressure to begin with, and heap onto that the flack a child would get from classmates/team-mates, the only people he can work with to improve his game, and it's no wonder there are so few gay footballers. If you're a gay musician, you can retreat from the childish,(literally) bullying, and create songs in your bedroom. Film-makers and actors mainly develop between the ages of 18-25, when more gay friendly avenues are open to them. But no matter how good you are, if you haven't made it by the age of 14,and been picked up by a premiership team, you're finished. Trying to think of footballers who are/were in the top tier of playing, and who didn't make it by the age of 18, I can think of Joleon Lescott, Jimmy Bullard, Jermaine Backford, Ian Wright, Stuart Pearce, Iain Dowie, .... erm, actually, having thought for 5 mins, that is all I can think of.

    So whilst it is for an adult to be gay footballer, maybe it's a lot harder for a gay teenager to stick at football, and thus learn the skills needed to make it to be a professional.

    Another good topic Joshua!