Justin Fashanu of Norwich City

It was hard not to notice West Ham’s Matt Jarvis as he posed shirtless on the cover of Europe’s best-selling gay magazine Attitude a few months ago. His immaculate chest and sun-kissed skin surely helped fuel sales. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, the cover was probably worth a lot more in pounds—roughly three for the digital version—than for its impact.

Perhaps the cover’s intention wasn’t to alter society’s views on an issue, but to simply start a conversation, a dialogue about the last remaining taboo in the sport. But there’s nothing groundbreaking anymore about a straight athlete posing on a gay or niche magazine anymore, particularly as Jarvis isn’t the only footballer to have graced the cover. David Beckham and Freddie Ljungberg did so before him, with little effect in changing people’s attitudes.

That’s because covers such as these (regardless of the magazine) are in the end nothing more than eye candy, meant to persuade buyers to reach deep into their pockets. They appeal to our desires and not our intellect, as Plato might put it.

It’s certainly commendable when straight footballers take pride in their role as ‘gay icons’, but in the grand scheme of things, the progress football has made in tackling homophobia is pitiable. The sad truth is that it’s been 23 years since an active, professional footballer came out of the closet in England.

It’s not hard to see why. Justin Fashanu’s messy coming out didn’t have the same positive reaction as that of Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player, who admitted he was gay near the end of his career in 2009. Instead, Fashanu was shunned by coaches, players and even some members of his family. His life ended in tragedy when he committed suicide following sexual assault allegations in the United States.

While it’s refreshing to hear the Football Association Chairman David Bernstein allay gay players’ fears of going public or Cesare Prandelli and Claudio Marchisio’s support of gay players, the road ahead is still uncertain.

The closest football recently came was when former Leeds United midfielder Robbie Rogers came out in an online letter. Yet his announcement coincided with him leaving the sport. While the outpour of support was tremendous from fans and players, it wasn’t enough to suggest a groundbreaking change in attitude.

Just last November, United’s Anders Lindegaard wrote the following on his blog:

“Homosexuals are in need of a hero. They are in need of someone who dares to stand up for their sexuality.”

Lindegaard isn’t the first player to encourage gay footballers to come forward. Three years ago, German international Mario Gomez also favoured a stronger voice from active players.

“They would play as if they were liberated,” Gomez said. “Being gay should no longer be a taboo topic.”

Liberating, definitely, but such a statement underscores the degree of complexity involved. Even though it’s refreshing to have other footballers express their solidarity towards a gay player, it’s a journey that won’t be made any easier in an environment that in some ways remains as fierce and antagonistic as it was decades ago.

A Hostile Culture and Environment

In terms of welcoming change, there’s a general consensus that the current environment is still too hostile for a player to go public with their sexual orientation. More needs to be done by the FA and the sport in general to create an environment conducive to gay footballers.

The Stonewall Report discovered widespread homophobia within the sport.

• Three in five fans believe that anti-gay abuse from fans dissuades gay players from coming out
• Almost two thirds of fans believe football would be a better sport if anti-gay abuse was eradicated
• Two thirds of fans would feel comfortable if a player on their team came out
• Over half of fans think the FA, Premier League and Football League are not doing enough to tackle anti-gay abuse

Football may not have evolved as much as we think since Fashanu’s death, something Lindegaard also recently acknowledged:

“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.”

But the guilty label shouldn’t just apply to fans, as the recent Alan Gordon game suspension in MLS for using a gay slur indicates. The subculture of communication among footballers, for instance, likely suggests that ignorance and insensitivity are probably more common than people suspect.

Take Liverpool player Suso’s gay twitter remark about his teammate whitening his teeth as a case in point. Despite the midfielder’s fining, the comment itself speaks volumes. Evidently Jose Enrique’s response only made matters worse, when he tweeted this in his teammates defence.

“Is amazing how FA can fine my friend Suso Fernandez for a banter thing. Was just a joke!!!”

This raises another question: where do you draw the line between ‘banter’ and discrimination?

What’s more telling of this type of attitude is the blatant use of the word gay without awareness of its offensive qualities. The ongoing acceptance of the often all too loose and generous use of the word ‘gay’ further illustrates that the sport needs to rid itself of certain elements deep-seated within its very own culture.

Luke Edwards from the Telegraph says it may be seen as harmless by some players, yet it’s very representative of the locker room environment.

“The young Spaniard argued his comments were meant to be lighthearted, although it says much about the everyday vocabulary used in dress rooms up and down the country.”

While support from some realms of the sport are on the rise, let’s not forget that only last summer during Euro 2012, Italy’s Antonio Cassano said he hoped there were no gay players on his national team.

Dealing with abuse from teammates is only one of several forms of discrimination hurled at gay players. Others can also come from management. What if some coaches hold very traditional or religious views and refuse to work with gay footballers? Would a club sign a mediocre or decent player, who happens to be gay, if they knew the coach was homophobic? What about the risk of losing sponsors and endorsements?

Luiz Felipe Scolari, for example, didn’t hide his feelings towards homosexuals.

“If I found out that one of my players was gay, I would throw him off the team.”

Yet, his homophobic views didn’t prevent Chelsea from hiring him as head coach six years later, nor did it stop Brazil from appointing him as their current national coach.

Scolari isn’t alone in his views. Another individual, who made an offensive comment while in a position of power and influence, was the former head of the Croatian Football Federation Vlatko Markovic back in 2010.

“As long as I’m president (of the football federation) there will be no gay players. Thank goodness only healthy people play football.”

The level of ignorance in this statement requires no further elaboration, but it does hit a very sensitive nerve when one’s sexual orientation is compared to a condition or illness. He eventually apologized, but it was speculated that it was likely due to pressure or to save face, or likely both.

Even Sepp Blatter was guilty of having made a comment symbolic of dormancy rather than transformation, when he said homosexuals fans should refrain from sex at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The Hero Narrative

How essential is the need for a current gay hero? There are those in the football blogosphere who make the argument that gay footballers don’t necessarily need to wait for one of their own to come out.

Matt Phil Carver believes homosexual players can look to Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and David Beckham as models to follow. Carver is essentially arguing that they should feel inspired by their respective resilience and dignity in the face of scandals and abuse. It’s the qualities that matter and not one’s sexual orientation.

It’s an argument written in good faith, yet essentially fails to situate the experience of the gay footballer in proper context. The experiences of Cole, Beckham and Campbell (and Terry to some extend) don’t mirror the reality of the types of abuses gay footballers face. Moreover, this view essentially conflates being gay with enduring the results of a self-inflicted personal scandal.

Plus, if Campbell endured so much hardship for simply being suspected of being gay, how would fans have reacted if he really were? All it took was a rumour to reach a minority of extreme fans to set the ball rolling.

Graeme Le Saux, the former England international and Chelsea defender, was also hit with a similar fate as that of Campbell’s. He went on to speak at length about his ordeal both to media and in his autobiography.

“The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football. I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going.
“I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors.”

It’s also noteworthy to mention here that Le Saux wasn’t just tormented by fans, but players too, notably the infamous incident with Robbie Fowler.

Mixed Reactions

Buried between these heart-rending examples is the curious case of Anton Hysen. So far Hysen seems to be an exception to the rule. He is a Swedish fourth division player who came out in 2011 to a surprisingly warm welcome.

Although, Hysen’s case is reassuring and hopeful, it certainly can’t be compared to the top levels of the game, where the risks and repercussions are much higher. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and sends a positive message to gay athletes at any level and sport.

For others, however, coming out meant sacrificing the sport they loved. The courageous example of German second division player Marcus Urban illustrates this. In the mid 1990s, Urban decided to abruptly end his dream of becoming a professional soccer player because of his sexual orientation.

A few years ago he gave an interview to the Stuttgarter Zeitung.

“The word gay only existed for me as a curse word. I thought as a footballer one can’t be gay, and that’s the end of it.”

By the same token, there have also been current footballers discouraging players to publicly come out. Germany’s Tim Wiese and Philip Lahm don’t think it’s worth the struggle due to the backlash they’ll receive, in particular from the fans.

While some favour and others disfavour going public, within soccer there also exists a third group, the silent majority. This faction pretty much says nothing at all, at least not openly.

In the documentary ‘Britain’s Gay Footballers’ the prevalent silence among footballers, especially straight ones, to talk in detail as well as on camera about the issue shows the unsettling and forbidden nature of the subject.

This is by far one of the sport’s greatest challenges because from the bottom to the top not a single realm is immune to homophobia.

While Joey Barton predicted another gay footballer will come out in England within the next 10 years, in order for that to happen the environment and culture need to drastically change. A gay positive space will organically lead to the desired results.

Then again, there’s also the risk of essentialization. Former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers told ABC News in a recent interview he doesn’t want to be known as the gay footballer.

“Gay athletes are athletes…If I go back to soccer, I want to go back as Robbie. I just want it to be as simple as that.”

That all said, tackling homophobia in a sport with a macho culture is a staggering effort despite the mesmerizing covers, and Italian observers of the sport Giovanni Arpino and Alfio Caruso said it best, “Football is always late in making history.”