According to the Office for National Statistics, 2.3% of UK males identify as gay or bisexual. Yet, if you were to scour the changing rooms of the English Premier League for an openly gay man, you would turn up empty-handed. That’s not to say that there aren’t any. There just aren’t any that have told the world about it. Raised their hand to be known as a gay footballer.

In fact, as far as I can see, there hasn’t ever been an openly gay Premier league player. Not in its 26-year history. Actually, let me correct myself slightly. Thomas Hitzelsperger, the former German International and Aston Villa winger, came out in 2014 following his retirement, saying;

“I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards”

Thomas Hitzelsperger

On the face of it, since then, there has been little in the way of progress. No former big name players opening up. No players at the top of their game announcing that they are homosexual or bisexual. In the modern and liberal world that we supposedly live in, is this a surprise? Or does this merely reflect the deep-rooted prejudice and the sporting culture that exists? The same culture that many years ago had Justin Fashanu ostensibly cast out of the professional game.

Acceptance And Education

An example of a gay sportsman who came out in the UK while playing at the highest level is Gareth Thomas. Generally, when he came out, rugby fans were supportive, as were the mainstream media. However, despite having captained his country for many years and being one of the best to have put on the red jersey of Wales, Thomas still had to deal with small-minded views from the dark corners of the internet becoming a part of his real life.

At the tail end of last year, in his hometown of Cardiff, Thomas was attacked. Victim of an apparent hate crime carried out by a 16-year old boy. Thomas chose restorative justice as his way of handling the attack. Focusing on the education of a young mind and his views on homosexuality. Unfortunately, not an education afforded to every young male in the country.

In Search of a gay footballer: Welsh Rugby Star Gareth Thomas

As a straight-man, I can’t even begin to imagine the uncertainty and self-doubt that might go through one’s mind if they were thinking of coming out. Not only to their teammates, but to the world. For any footballer considering it however, I’d imagine some of these would be at the forefront of their mind.

The Social Media Effect                                                 

Social media in the last decade has exploded and has arguably gained as much power and influence as mainstream media. This has proved to be the gift and the curse, from charity drives such as the ice bucket challenge spreading like wildfire and raising huge amounts of money for ALS. To witchhunts of young teachers, alleged to have had affairs with famous footballers.

It’s the perfect storm, that would only serve to amplify the whirlwind of coverage and opinion on any openly gay footballer and open him and the people he loves up to abuse from all angles.

Social media and Twitter, in particular, has shown, people are now less upfront with their hatred. However, it still exists and it bubbles under the surface. Given a chance, it will come out wherever they find enough digital anonymity or a like-minded group of voices to feel comfortable.

Footballer Mind Games

When you hear ex-pros talk about playing at the top level, one of the reoccurring themes is that of trash talking. Both on the pitch and on the training ground. While we may tune into Sky Sports and with a bit of lip reading can take in the odd profanity due to a poor refereeing decision. This is just the tip of the iceberg and during the course of 90 mins plus extra time, there is a lot more that goes unheard. This approach doesn’t just hit when you reach the professional level. It’s all age groups and all ability levels and is an accepted part of the game.

When this trash talk goes too far or hits a nerve it can result in either a loss of focus and poor performance, or a complete “head’s gone”, red-mist of fury and aggression. So now imagine being an openly gay footballer and the gamesmanship that others might employ in order to put you in either of these situations. In a game of results, sympathy is short-lived, no matter your situation or provocations.

From The Terraces

The chants and songs that can be heard around the grounds of the Premiership week in week out, can range from the sublime to the outright vile. They have both raised question of underlying racist tones and also brought joy to those watching a dull 0-0 in damp and chilly conditions. Most importantly, every Premiership player without fail hears them. No matter what your mental strength or capacity to focus on the task at hand, thirty thousand people singing in unison is hard to ignore. Harder still when they are singing about you.

On the positive side, you may hear the wildly popular “Will Griggs is on fire” to the tune of “Freed from desire”. Or the Toure brothers chant, sung by pretty much anyone, at any opportunity. The effect of such chants can be seen on the pitch. With the rye smiles of some players when they hear their name sung in such an affectionate way.

On the other hand, just last week I was in the crowds at a FA Cup game. Here I saw a lot more of the negative side of terrace chants. Sat with my teenage nephew, there were many fans singing about Alexis Sanchez. To be more precise, about Sanchez and his love of fornicating with his Golden Retrievers. This group of fans is in no way unique. I’ve also heard chants about paedophilia, air disaster and stadium disaster in my time. Even with clubs trying to root out ringleaders of offensive chants, there is simply no way to police chants, for appropriateness.

Now what kind of effect would hearing insulting songs about your sexual-orientation have on your psyche? What would it do to your performance?

Looking To The Future With A Gay Footballer

There are a couple of big questions that need to be asked: How many talented footballers have been lost through fear of unfair treatment? And how many have struggled to reach their potential due to the pressure of trying to lead their life whilst also, avoiding being outed against their wishes?

The truth is, we may never live in an era without homophobic views in sport. Nonetheless, if we can at least create an environment where homophobic views are the smallest and quietest voices in the conversation, then maybe we might have an atmosphere where gay players have nothing to fear and everything to gain. The mental freedom of no longer having to hide a big part of themselves.

Despite its partnership with Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces, Paddy Powers recent campaign around gay footballers at Brighton Pride, received mixed reviews. This demonstrates that although brands are choosing to align themselves with the LGBT causes in football. It is a complex issue and getting the tone right is key. Where brands get this wrong, at best it may come off as a cynical ploy. A pursuit of “The Pink Pound”. At worst, they may put the conversation back, discouraging future players who may be considering opening up about their sexuality.

The first high profile gay footballer will be a trailblazer and a beacon for others to follow in the future. That much is clear. Let’s hope that this day is sooner rather than later. And that they are received with open arms by the footballing community.

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