I have written loosely, and with my tongue slightly in my cheek, about homophobia in football before – in relation to what will likely go down as the Snood Era. The issue has come up again since then thanks to Sepp Blatter’s repugnant remarks that homosexual fans visiting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be advised to ‘refrain’ from intercourse. The stakes, however, were raised over the weekend.
On Friday, Anton Hysen (a 20-year-old Swedish player whose Dad, Glenn, played for Liverpool in the early 90s) became the first professional footballer to come out. ‘Come out’, here, means make his sexuality public; it was discussed in arguably more striking terms by The Guardian’s ‘secret footballer’ on Saturday morning. According to this anonymous player, he is unaware of any instance of a player coming out in private to colleagues or friends within the game.
So it seems that Europe has 1 openly gay footballer and that England has 0 privately gay footballers.
These are remarkable statistics, and damning. Hysen’s seemingly innocuous remark to the Swedish football magazine Offside – ‘It is completely strange, isn’t it? It’s all fucked up. Where the hell are all the others? No one is coming out’* – takes on a darker meaning in the wider context of the stark statistics. Hysen speaks of fear and loneliness, which is completely understandable. Imagine the lengths to which a gay footballer will have to go to protect a sexual anonymity that he may not even want, but which is preferable to the alternative of becoming a trailblazer.
According to the secret footballer, the fans are to blame for creating this unpleasant dilemma. He may be part right, and society in general certainly has to question its complicity in maintaining a status quo in which one sexual preference is permitted only in a staunchly guarded private life.
The media, itself, however is also to blame. A short example from the print media is that, as The Guardian’s column this weekend again proved, no discussion of homosexuality in football is ever printed without reference to Justin Fashanu (who stands forever as an apocryphal warning to any young footballer contemplating coming out).
The larger problem is with ‘the media’ in a more general sense. Sky and The Premier League have a relationship the reciprocity of which is deeply engrained on both sides. Sky provide money and coverage in exchange for access. The extent of Sky’s investment in The Premier League informs the latter’s image. It becomes a product, and is cleansed to the highest degree possible as a result. The problem is not that homosexuality has no place within this product, but that sexuality itself has no place.
Sky present the characters of their most expensively acquired drama as sexless Gods. These are men dressed up as boys – they wear shorts and t-shirt to work every day. Intimate physical contact with other man-boys is unavoidable. They hug and kiss one another routinely in sexless camaraderie. None of this is natural. Footballers, to a greater extent than any other professionals, are defined by the world in which they work; football’s world is this bizarrely asexual, televised, boy scout camp.
This shunts sexuality off to the side. Sex is a dirty thing, which (unlike sexism) has no place on Sky. Heterosexuality is, of course, permitted but, necessarily, outside of the game.
So, while the terrible statistics regarding homosexuality in football do, undoubtedly, speak for the pressing need for society (in general) to change its attitude towards homosexuality (in general), they also allow us to disguise the completely bizarre way that we treat young men who happen to be very good at one particularly popular sport. It is weird, and it creates weirdos (as I wrote a couple of weeks ago) as a result – if more evidence is needed, just think of the horrific excesses of heterosexuality in which certain footballers have been known to partake (and film) in recent years.
* This translation appears in The Guardian.