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When the Manchester United goalkeeper, Anders Lindegaard, wrote in his blog last week of a footballing culture ‘in need of a [gay] hero’, he hit upon an uneasy debate which has haunted the sport for a generation. Since the coming-out and media haranguing of Justin Fashanu in 1990, and his tragic suicide in 1998, the face of English football has never deviated from one of ultra-masculinity, gritty-heterosexuality and an awkward silence surrounding what fate would befall any other footballers brave enough to come out.
In 21st century Britain, where Rylan has been accepted into the front-rooms of the nation in all his exuberance, the very silence of sexuality in sport and the tabloid titillation at any possible cross-over between footballers and homosexuality, represents a bewildering gap in equality. The self-satisfaction that accompanies each threatened gay exposé of an unnamed footballer speaks to the overstated importance placed on being straight in sport, as the tabloids revel in the power of holding the player’s life and career in their hands. The secrecy surrounding sexuality in football imagines gayness as incompatible with a successful career by default.
Yet, statistically speaking, the sheer volume of players active in the English leagues makes it virtually undeniable that some will be of homosexual persuasion. Their very reluctance to voice their lifestyle publically speaks volumes. It ultimately represents a bizarre relapse in cultural change, as the bigotry and homophobic abuse imagined onto the baying terraces at each match dictates a culture of sexual silence. A vision of the darkness that besieged 80s/90s football through yob-culture remains the driving force behind choosing the closet, as the FEAR of the terrace and the abuse from the minority make it an understandably daunting choice to make.
As Lindegaard writes: ‘The problem for me is that a lot of football fans are stuck in a time of intolerance that does not deserve to be compared with modern society’s development in the last decades. While the rest of the world has been more liberal, civilised and less prejudiced, the world of football remains stuck in the past when it comes to tolerance.’
Whilst initiatives such as Kick It Out are admirable for addressing this anxious, out-dated culture, without any prominent footballers they are impotent, unable to address the reality of abuse. A hero is needed to bring a face to sexuality in football, bring normality to counter bigoted views of gayness and ultimately trump the silence and tension that the very absence of sexuality creates.
This will not be an easy path to follow as the status of torch-bearer will inevitably bring unprecedented media coverage, fan cynicism and the burden of being the first. When Anton Hysen, defender in the Swedish fourth division, came out in 2011 headlines were made. The attention garnered by a Premiership footballer, known to the global footballing community, would bring another level of media attention. Or perhaps not.
The true challenge posed by the ‘gay footballer’ is that of normality, as the ‘gay’ is no longer just the flamboyant entertainer, but the stoic, athletic and hard-working midfielder playing week-in, week-out for club and country. The normality of sexuality, somehow forgotten in this debate would perhaps kill the dissenting voices and usher in a realisation of acceptance.
Football undeniably holds a tarnished history of bigotry and close-mindedness, which such a ‘hero’s presence would act to counter. For example, one of many low points in Robbie Fowler’s career came in February 1999, in a match between Liverpool and Chelsea, as he repeatedly bent over, pointing his chunky arse in the direction of Graeme le Saux, taunting the defender about (false) rumours surrounding his sexuality. However, such episodes of crass, lad-culture are seemingly dying out on the pitch.
With a new generation comes a new standard. Arsenal’s summer signing, Oliver Giroud’s decision to appear buff and bold on the cover of the gay magazine Tetu, perhaps signals a sea-change in attitudes towards sexuality, masculinity and a defiant ‘what’s-the-big-deal’ to commentary that seemingly seeks to continue the hetero/homo assumptions and feed close-mindedness on the terraces.
A hero is needed to force fans to bring the same acceptance they show in the real world through colleagues and friends, to their life on the terraces. The absence of such a gay figure serves only to deepen sexual anxiety and embed unfounded assumptions about the incompatibility of gays and sport.