In the wake of Thomas Hitzlsperger’s recent announcement that he is gay, Piers Barber argues there is still much to be done in the fight against homophobia in football.
Despite a few controversial moments, the anti-racism Kick It Out campaign has developed into one of the most keenly supported movements in football. The British game, it seems, cares about the eradication of racist abuse. Yet the fight against homophobia continues to drift by, continually unnoticed and relatively uncovered.
Football may finally have found a reason to be optimistic in the shape of former German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who recently announced that he is gay in an interview with a German newspaper. Yet the recent debacle over the selection of the Football Association’s Inclusion Advisory Board has depressingly demonstrated just how hard the movement against homophobia in British football still has to fight.
A quick Google search was all it took to reveal the time Michael Johnson, who was hired to the board for the role he has played in the fight against racism, had described homosexuality as “detestable” during an appearance on the BBC1 programme The Big Questions early in 2012.
Although Johnson claimed to have dedicated substantial time to “re-educating” himself since making his comments, his appointment, and – more significantly – the lack of emphasis placed by the FA on researching their potential employees’ views on the issue, represents yet another depressing moment in the fight against homophobia in football. Johnson has since stood down from his post.
It is the latest setback in what has been a stilted and undeveloped campaign by British football’s leading authority. Criticism of its efforts have been persistent: in 2012 former basketball player John Amaechi claimed the association was “by definition the problem” in the fight against homophobia. Since then, human rights activist Peter Tatchell has withdrawn from the FA’s working group because he did not feel the organisation was taking the matter seriously enough.
Yet the blame for the stunted and pitiable fight against anti-gay sentiment in British football cannot be placed solely at the FA’s door. Homophobia in football is the sport’s last great taboo; an awkward issue that continues to be largely pushed to the back of everyone’s minds. The movement lacks public and professional support: in 2010, for example, the FA was reportedly forced to indefinitely postpone a video intended to discourage homophobic chanting at matches after failing to find a player willing to endorse it.
With regards to homosexuality, football’s most significant failure is that in the entire history of the British game, just three players have come out as gay. For the first, Justin Fashanu, also British football’s first £1 million black player, his revelation had traumatic and devastating consequences. After announcing his sexuality in 1990, he suffered eight years of bitter abuse, which included Brian Clough, one of the game’s greatest ever managers, deriding him as “a bloody poof”. In 1998, he committed suicide.
In the long years between Fashanu and Hitzlsperger’s announcements, the only players to have publicly admitted to being gay have been Anton Hysen, a Swedish lower league player, and former Leeds United midfielder Robbie Rogers, who announced his sexuality on the internet last year.
Neither Hitzlsperger nor Rogers, both of whom played in England for large portions of their careers, felt unable to make their announcement until the conclusion of their careers. What is it, then, about football culture that makes it so incapable of accepting the concept of homosexuality?
Our game continues to be the worst sporting culprit for homophobia. “Football is an amazing sport,” Rogers argued in an interview last year, “but it is also a brutal sport that picks people up and slams them on their heads.” The situation is so bad that leading figures in the world game have even spoken out explicitly against homosexuality. Whilst managing Brazil during the 2002 World Cup, former Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari stated that he would throw out a team member if he was found to be gay.
In his coming out interview, Hitzlsperger argued that “homosexuality isn’t a serious topic for discussion in England, Germany or Italy – at least not in the dressing room.” Yet the idea that dressing room culture – a world of laddish bravado, masculinity and ‘banter’ – is to blame for the lack of openly homosexual players in football has been questioned by many inside the game.
Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindgaard recently spoke out in support of the attitudes of his fellow professionals, arguing that “I think a homosexual colleague would be afraid of the reception he could get from the fans, but my impression is that the players would not have problem accepting a homosexual.” Elsewhere, the Guardian’s Secret Footballer also agreed that the typical dressing room would be capable of accepting a gay player.
The greater issue here, then, is terrace culture. One needs only look to the treatment of players rumoured to be gay to understand why homosexuals might be heavily reluctant to make their true sexuality common knowledge. Despite being married with two children, Graeme Le Saux shunned conventional dressing room culture and in response was treated to a barrage of homosexual abuse from fans and professionals, most notably Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler. Sol Campbell and Freddie Ljungberg have also suffered from bitter homophobic abuse from the terraces.
It is, of course, hardly true that homosexuality is widely accepted and celebrated in other sports. Many do, however, possess high profile role models who have enjoyed successful careers after coming out. For rugby, witness Gareth Thomas. Diving now has Britain’s Tom Daley. Basketball has Jason Collins, who last year became the first active male athlete in a major American sport to announce he was gay. Even boxing, the most physical and traditionally macho of all sporting contests, has seen the Puerto Rican Orlando Cruz make his homosexuality public.
Football now has Hitzlsperger, by far and away the most famous footballer to have come out in recent years. As a player with substantial experience in major European leagues and 52 caps for Germany, his coming out will provoke more discussion on the issue than ever before. And the congratulations which flooded in following his announcement are greatly heartening.
Yet the dispiriting case of the FA and Michael Johnson should not be forgotten hastily. British football must still see a major cultural shift in how in how homosexuality is approached on the British terraces. Our game requires a focused, concerted effort by the FA, including the new board, to educate, inform, and punish the spread of homophobia. If there is strong leadership from the top, it may soon be easier to focus on stories like Hitzlsperger’s rather than those similar to Johnson’s. The German has forced a breakthrough. His bravery must now not go to waste.
Piers is a regular football blogger who often writes for Dream Team Fantasy Football .