Steven Davies, the England international cricketer, who chose on Monday to publicly embrace his homosexuality, does so in an environment of mature acceptence. His England teammates reacted to the news from the 23-year-old wicketkeeper, which came out prior to this winter’s Ashes Tour, with a response hoped for but not expected in football.
Indeed, football, from terrace homophobia that is the norm not the exception, to a top top-down culture that embraces discrimination at its very core, is a world away from an environment in which a top international player feels safe to publicly declare his sexuality.
Macho, aggressive, and unaccepting, one wonders whether the football community – fans, players, administrators – can ever accept a player for what he his, and not his sexual orientation. After all, when the sport’s leading figure Sepp Blatter reacted to criticism of Qatar’s selection to host the 2022 World Cup, his was one of childish sniggering. Qatar remains a country where it is illegal to be gay.
“I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities,” said Blatter of those concerned about the treatment of gay fans at the 2022 tournament. The FIFA President later issued a weak apology, stating that it was not his “intention” to discriminate against homosexual fans.
Davies’ bravery in coming out with his career ahead is not in the act in but understanding that prejudice is still deeply ingrained in society, especially in the confines of sporting dressing rooms. Yet cricket’s collective reaction to Davies’ statement today appears a metaphorical ‘so what’? It is impossible to imagine a similarly mature response from football fans, let alone fellow players or administrators.
Indeed, in the more than 30 years since Justin Fashanu – the first professional to come out – was driven to his suicide football has seemingly achieved little. There is little serious attempt to do so from within the game, save for an FA sponsored video last year. That the governing body was unable to attract leading footballers to take part in the video paints just as vivid a picture.
Gordon Taylor, president of the Professional Footballers Association, admitted last year that tackling homophobia is simply “not very high on the agenda.” And when Croatian FA President Vlatko Markovic claimed that “luckily, only normal people play football” few in football’s glitterati offered the criticism his words deserved.
“While I’m a president of the Croatian Football Federation, there will be no homosexuals playing in the national team”, added Markovic mirroring a culture in which discrimination is not only accepted but sponsored by the game’s authorities.
Homophobic language is endemic, not only in administration, but on the terraces and wider football community too. Tottenham Hotspur supporters’ disgraceful degradation of Sol Campbell, and Arsenal fans of Ashley Cole are just two examples of homosexuality continually being used as a pejorative by supporters.
When Michael Becker, Michael Ballack’s agent, described the German national side as a “bunch of gays” after the team’s elimination from World Cup 2010 in South Africa he aped the words of a thousand supporters and some players too. After all, Rio Ferdinand, lauded as a leading figure in anti-violence and racism movements in the game was moved to call DJ Chris Moyles a “faggot” live on Radio 1.
Manchester United supporters are not immune to this culture either, as witnessed by the childish internet gossip about John O’Shea’s sexuality up to the defender’s marriage last summer.
These events bring into question whether the football world could both accept an active gay player in its midst and deal with the potential consequences, including media intrusion, supporter ridicule, and peer anger.
Yet the Rugby community seemingly accepted Gareth Thomas’ coming out last year, with both support and maturity. Rugby League’s refusal to tolerate abuse on or off the field of Welsh international Thomas set an example FIFA simply will not.
Some are swimming against the tide of homophobia though. In reaction to Becker’s comments Ballack’s club Bayer Leverkusen refuted the remarks. “At Bayer Leverkusen we have absolutely no resentment towards homosexuals,” it said in a statement last July.
Meanwhile Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez called on gay colleagues to come out, pointing to a “gay vice chancellor and a gay mayor of Berlin” as evidence that “footballers should confess themselves as well.”
Words though are not enough if football is to stamp out homophobia as it has tried – although too often failed – to eliminate racism. “There is no place in the game for homophobic abuse, ” said the FA two years ago. The governining body has done little to make good on its words though.
Until it does and the wider football community grows with its leaders, Davies’ ‘bravery’ will simply not be matched in football – the game loved by fans of all orientation.