I blame Mario Gomez. He started it, when he would have been best advised to keep his mouth shut. The Bayern Munich striker, speaking to a German magazine, encouraged gay footballers to come out of the closet. “They would play as if they had been liberated”, he said. “Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic… professional footballers should own up to their preference.”
As someone who is bisexual and who has played football in a few environments that one might call unfriendly to gays, I feel that I can offer a useful if limited perspective on this topic. I don’t think that professional footballers – let alone amateur footballers – “should” do anything that might make them uncomfortable or even miserable; in the same way that I don’t think that Nick Griffin “should” go round for a hearty dish of rice ‘n peas with his friendly neighbourhood ethnics. (Griff is missing out, but that’s not the point.)
Anyway, what do I know? The conventional wisdom on this topic has recently and helpfully been provided by Vlatko Markovic, the head of the Croatian football federation. Speaking to Croatian and Serbian papers, he commented that “as long as I’m president, there will be no gay players. Thank goodness only healthy people play football.”
Thank goodness indeed, Mr. Markovic. It isn’t clear whether he was referring to physical or spiritual health, but no matter; these are both categories in which the earnestly practising homosexual has long been accused of falling short of excellence. Thank goodness, then, that football’s heterosexuals have hitherto covered themselves in glory, free from sexual scandals of any sort.
Mr. Markovic, as you might imagine, is in fine company. Michael Becker, Michael Ballack’s agent, referred to the German team before the World Cup as “a bunch of queers”. It’s not clear which of the queers were responsible for the searing counterattacks that destroyed the proud and morally upstanding heterosexuals of England in the second round. It’s also not clear precisely which of the poofs put paid to Argentina’s title hopes; presumably, a good old witch-hunt would sort that out.
Then again, maybe surprisingly few would bother hunting at all. When Becker’s buffoonery first became known to the sports pages, it sparked vigorous interest for all of a few days, and then disappeared. Which suggests that, somewhere along the line, this issue has diminished in importance.
That’s not to say that a gay or bisexual player who came out the closet would not face some form of discrimination. After all, homosexuality is still illegal in many countries, even though that’s about as ridiculous as banning sand in the Sahara. But it does suggest that we’ve come some way from the fatalistic days of Justin Fashanu, the gay player whose revelation of his sexuality was followed by estrangement and eventual suicide.
It is generally thought that gay players do not come out for reasons of physical safety; or that they are not emotionally ready to face the abuse of thousands of vitriolic fans. There is probably truth in both of these assumptions, but there is further nuance to this issue of which we should take note. Some players may not have accepted their own sexuality; raised in ignorance or prejudice, they may regard themselves with disgust, and the only thing worse than hating yourself is hearing the affirmation of your self-loathing from forty thousand fans every week.
There may also be sound financial reasons for staying in the closet. Modern footballers, particularly at the highest level, have long been financial assets, and any form of controversy is liable to affect their market value and prospects of sponsorship. Why, then, should they reduce their potential for earnings in what is generally a very short career? All of the logic seems to point to cashing in as much as you can between 18 and 32, and waltzing off into post-career anonymity with hundreds of thousands if not millions in the bank.
On this reasoning, gay and bisexual footballers should not come out for financial reasons. They should also not come out if they seek acceptance from people like Markovic and Becker, the latter of whose primary gripe with gays seems to be that they made his own client obsolete in the German national team. According to Max Clifford, whose PR instincts are rated by many as second to none, to come out would be an exercise in futility. “Over the last decade,” said Clifford in 2009, “there have been four footballers who were gay or bisexual who came to see me for advice. And every one of them made it very clear that they totally believed that if they came out, their careers were finished.”
Reading the Clifford quote again and again, though, reminds me of something about rapid social progress; and how it often happens by accident. Arguably the most iconic incident of the Civil Rights movement was not Martin Luther King dispensing wisdom; it was a black woman refusing to make way on a crowded bus so that a white person could sit down. The reason that what Rosa Parks did resonates with many of us far more than the lofty words of “I Have A Dream” is that it was so human. It was sheer frustration, and there are few emotions more universal than that.
With that in mind, it might well be that the first leading player to come out will do so not as a result of a carefully-planned press campaign, but due to a Rosa Parks moment. Here’s a possible scenario. Football has its ample share of oafs, fools, loudmouths and braggarts, and so there’s a steady supply of people like Becker and Markovic that the average gay or bisexual player will have to endure in silence whilst carving out a career. But I’ll wager that, one day, one of those players will snap under the sheer weight of their idiocy. He won’t come out in order to Fight The Power or any such thing. He will more likely do so because he has just scored a hat-trick in a local derby; and, flushed from success, he’ll turn on Sky News or TalkSport and hear someone spouting dead-eyed dogma off about how gays don’t belong in a man’s game. At that crucial moment, all considerations of career and future earnings will go out of the window; and he will Tweet his heart out to thousands of his followers:
“IF YOU THINK GAYS CAN’T PLAY FOOTBALL YOUSE ARE ALL F**KING IDIOTS…WHAT ABOUT MY HATTRICK THEN? WATCH IT TONIGHT ON MATCH OF THE DAY LOL”
The Tweet will be sent around the world; the player will shrug, “yeah, so what, I said it”; and, rumour has it, the world will continue to turn. It’s likely that football will move forward thus, in an instant of irritation rather than any grand gesture of Liberation. And the game will be far better for it. This, then, is perhaps the greatest reason why players should come out, and one with which Rosa Parks would hopefully have agreed; because, when all’s said and done, they are fed up.
This article was originally published in The Independent, on 16 November 2010. Link below: