Isn't it time gay footballers were able to come out?

Recently, Bayern Munich and Germany striker Mario Gomez urged gay footballers to come out. “We have a gay Vice-Chancellor, Berlin's mayor is gay ... professional football players should commit to their inclination," Gomez said. “They would play as if they were liberated”

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This raises an interesting issue. When will a gay footballer publicly come out?

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Whatever your personal views on homosexuality, it is undoubtedly true that gay people will make up a part of your everyday life. You probably work, go to school with or socialise with a gay person. By and large, gay people, rightly, have the same rights as everyone else. However, for one reason or another, football seems to be different and is lagging behind both society in general and other sports in that homosexuality is still taboo.

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The only footballer to have publicly come out was former Norwich and Nottingham Forest striker Justin Fashanu. Fashanu’s story is a sad one. He earned a move to Nottingham Forest, becoming the first black player to be transferred for £1m, after a string of great performances and goals for Norwich, including a brilliant strike
against Liverpool, the 1980 Goal of the Season.

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At Forest, things started to go wrong for him. He lost his confidence and was terrified of legendary manager Brian Clough, who made some derogatory comments about the rumours surrounding Fashanu’s rumoured visits to gay bars. Clough recalled in his autobiography on dressing down he gave him "'Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?' I asked him. 'A baker's, I suppose.' 'Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?' 'A butcher's.' 'So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?"

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Fashanu was at the tail end of his career when
he publicly came out in 1990, in an interview with The Sun, who showed their usual tact and sensitivity by spicing the story up with lurid tales of his supposed relationships with MP’s, other footballers and celebrities. Fashanu was disowned publicly by his brother, John, and received a backlash from some of the public. His career suffered, with clubs being unwilling to offer him a contract and ended his career overseas.

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Fashanu ended up coaching the Maryland Mania. While there, a 17-year-old made an allegation of sexual assault against him and Fashanu fled back to England believing there were warrants out for his arrest. Convinced he was going to be extradited and found guilty, Fashanu commited suicide in May 1998. It was discovered that the police had already dropped their investigation into Fashanu and no warrants had been issued.

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No other footballer has come out in England since.

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Other sports, even those more macho than football, have openly gay players. Even Rugby has had openly gay players, including current Wales international and former British Lions captain Gareth Thomas. There have been gay boxing World Champions, gay Olympic gold medalists, gay grand-slam winners in tennis and gay NFL, MLB and NBA players (though they came out after they retired). So why aren’t there publicly gay footballers?

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Maybe one of the problems, here in
England anyway, is that the vast majority of footballers fit into very small pigoenholes and anyone that is a little bit different is looked upon with suspicion, if not excluded altogether.

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Former Chelsea, Blackburn and England defender Graeme Le Saux was taunted throughout his career for his supposed homosexuality, despite being heterosexual and married with children. This seemed to stem because Le Saux didn’t fit the usual footballer stereotype. He was university educated, liked to read newspapers that contain words of more than one syllable and his hobbies included art and antiques. Similarly, Sol Campbell was subjected to homophobic chants from some Spurs fans whilst playing for Portsmouth. Like Le Saux, there is nothing to suggest that Campbell is gay.

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So if someone like Le Saux can be ridiculed for nothing more than being middle-class and having different interests than most players, what chance does a gay player have of being accepted?
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Former professional Paul Elliott claimed he knew of 12 gay players who were afraid to come out. The foremost publicist in the UK, Max Clifford, claims he has been approached by two high-profile Premier League players about coming out and has advised both to stay in the closet because of the abuse they would receive. Clifford also said “It's a very sad state of affairs. But it's a fact that homophobia in football is as strong now as it was 10 years ago. If you'd asked me in 2000 whether I thought we'd have a famous, openly gay footballer by 2010 I would have said yes.”
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There are also suggestions that maybe clubs are blocking players from coming out. The chair of the FA’s “Homophobia in Football” group, Peter Clayton (the only openly gay FA councillor) says “There are also barriers to a player coming out from some clubs, firstly because the players are commercial assets and the clubs don't want those assets damaged, and secondly because a player coming out would cause disruption”.
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I don’t think that would be the case at all. In fact, I think the opposite would probably happen. There is no way any company that is big enough to be able to afford a celebrity endorsement would disassociate themselves with a gay footballer, for fear of the negative press they would generate, if nothing else.
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Despite general attitudes to homosexuality here in the UK and in many countries worldwide having improved since Fashanu came out, football has lagged way behind. It was only two years ago that homophobic chanting was banned. Recent fan polls have suggested that should a player come out the fans really wouldn’t be that bothered, it wouldn’t make any difference to their opinion of that player.

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Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like a problem that will be resolved soon. This year the Professional Footballers Association in England had to pull a anti-homophobia campaign video after being unable to find any players willing to participate in fear of being ridiculed. The FA’s own viral anti-homophobia campaign, was stopped after criticism that it could do more harm than good.

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It is ridiculous to suggest that this is just a problem in the Premier League. There are no high profile gay players (that I know of anyway) in the major European leagues. Therer has been a French coach and players from Norway and Germany who came out after retirement but no current players. Sadly there have also been some high-profile names in football that have expressed homphobic views publicly.

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Recently, Vlatko Markovic, the head of the Croatian Football Federation, said “while I’m President of the Croatian Football Federation, there will be no homosexuals in the national team”. He has since apologised, Unfortunately he was followed by by the executive VP of Dinamo Zagreb, Zdravko Mimic said in the past week “"I would not have Gay people playing in my national team either. Gay people are for ballet. They can be journalists or writers. They would never put their head in front of a football boot"

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New USA midfielder Jermaine Jones was once asked if he thought there were any gay players in the Bundesliga. He controversially replied “Hopefully not”

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In England, the FA has done a good job in its anti-racism initiatives. The bad old days where black players were routinely abused from the stands have thankfully been consigned to the past. The FA and football authorities around the world should put the same effort into stamping homophobic abuse out of the game, through education and by enforcing the anti-homophobia measures already taken.

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There are a few steps in the right direction being taken. Manchester City has been accredited as a gay-friendly workplace and more and more footballers are speaking out about the issue of accepting gay players into the football community. However, until more is done to stop homophobic chants and taunts, and attitudes from those inside the game in general change, it may be a long time before another gay player comes out, which in these times is a really sad thing.