As fans across the world settle on their couches or reserve their preferred spot at the bar to watch the planet’s most popular sport at its grand tournament, it seems a little contrary to criticise the beautiful game.
In the hearts of many of those watching will be the notion that the World Cup is ultimately inclusive, dominated by the talent and power of the players. Sadly, football today, even in the most open and supposedly progressive societies, is a closed bastion of heterosexuality. In the West you are much more likely to come across an openly gay minister or head of state (take Iceland) than a professional footballer who says he prefers men.
How can this be? Surely we have got beyond looking at football as a rough, uncontrolled world of hooliganism and neo-fascism (although this does persist). In gentrified north London, where fans might fork out in excess of £100 to watch their team, the atmosphere in the stands is boisterous but overwhelmingly civilised. Wives and children are not only tolerated but positively encouraged to endure the ritual. Here, casual homophobia and throwaway slurs are tolerated in a way that racist remarks would not be.
Early this year, retired German international Thomas Hitzlsperger came out. In a much-praised statement he said, “Being homosexual and a professional football player is something normal. The perceived contradiction between playing football, ‘the man’s game’, and being homosexual is nonsense.” In the US, Robbie Rogers, who plays for LA Galaxy, came out last year and went further by saying that he had only received “support and love” from the fans.
Much of the debate around homosexuality in football has centered on the perceived conservatism and reactionary nature of the fans rather than any kind of dressing-room confrontation. The players, now seen as Hollywood stars – only with more cash – are presumed to be a fairly tolerant, pampered bunch nowadays. No, it the pack mentality of the fans that is feared most. Once a three or four letter-word nickname is devised by one crass homophobe it will spread, develop and be chanted and sung for years to come. What club in their right mind would fork out millions on “that” player? The stigma and shame is spread and it is this that leads to silence.
But just how savage are these fans and should players, clubs, national teams and even Fifa be so scared of them? As Hitzlsperger said when he came out, nobody knows because their tolerance hasn’t been tested. Just last month a poll commissioned by equality charity Stonewall and fan-opinion gatherers Football Addicts revealed that there was overwhelming support among fans for players to come out. Granted, the questionnaire was much more likely to be answered by fans in Turin rather than Tehran but the results were encouraging.
Fear, speculation and high-level cover-ups have led gays to remain silent in so many spheres in the West. It’s about time that football, this most happy and joyful sector of public life, changed its ways and encouraged its players to feel that they can be open about their sexuality.
David Plaisant is Monocle 24’s associate producer.