According to the Office of National Statistics, 2% of the male population in the UK say they are gay or bi-sexual. If you were to apply that to the 700 or so squad players there are in the Premier League, that would work out at roughly 14 players. Officially, none are gay or bi-sexual though.
Paul Pogba attended the launch of UEFA’s RESPECT initiative this week which aims to promote diversity, fan culture and accessibility for everyone in football. He was asked whether the Premier League would be a safe environment for an openly gay footballer.
That’s something that I’ve never seen but why not? It’s a human being. What he does in his private life has nothing to do with the player. You just have to respect him. Because he respects you, you respect him. That’s it. It’s all about respect. It’s all about equality everywhere in the world. We are all equal when we play football.
This sounds nice and it is right to think this way but, sadly, it’s not true at all. A survey by Stonewall last year showed that 72% of fans had heard homophobic abuse at the football. One in five 18 to 24-year-olds said they’d be embarrassed if their favourite player came out. Young people are twice as likely to say anti-LGBT language is harmless if it’s just meant as ‘banter’.
Football fans can barely cope with seeing a woman on the pitch and females make up 51% of the population. Speaking from personal experience at Old Trafford, former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro always got a rough time when she entered the field of play to treat a player. “Get your tits out for the lads!” was the chant. On one occasion, footage showed one fan shouting “Show us where you piss from, you slag! Show us your minge!” It’s just banter, right?
Sian Massey gets an awful time when she runs the line. Even when making the, frustratingly, correct offside decision against a United player, she has been called all sorts of derogatory names by the crowd. All of the assistant referees get insulted but when she flags a United player offside or awards a throw-in to the opposition she’s called a “daft slag”, “silly bitch” or other insults associated with her gender. This comes from the minority, of course, but it goes largely unchallenged by those sitting among the men hurling the insults.
Presumably, Old Trafford isn’t the home of misogyny, and she faces this sort of abuse everywhere she goes. Women in Football found that two-thirds of women working in the football industry had been subjected to sexism.
“Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her,” said Richard Keys, before being sacked from Sky Sports for sexism, when Massey was an assistant referee for the first time in the Premier League in 2011.
“Female linesman . . . they probably don’t know the offside rule,” Andy Gray agreed. “Why is there a female linesman? Somebody’s fucked up big.”
“The game’s gone mad,” Key replied.
So, if women are still a target at the football, then what about gay men?
Former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger is the only openly gay footballer to have played in the Premier League and he waited until he was 31 and had retired before he made that information public.
When playing for Wolfsburg in 2011, he toyed with the idea of coming out, but decided against it after people advised him that a “big wave” would crash down on him if he did.
Essentially, this is an issue of masculinity. Football is a “man’s game” and for many people, if someone is homosexual, they are less “manly”.
When discussing this, I can’t help but think of something I saw recently on Twitter. An American woman who paints children’s faces at fairs and picnics told a fairly depressing story about a four-year-old boy who asked for a butterfly to be painted on his face. “No, he doesn’t want that,” the mum insisted, when hearing her son’s request. “Give him something for boys.” The face painter made the case for why it was completely acceptable for a boy to have a butterfly but the mum wasn’t having any of it. “Do you want your son to have a butterfly on his face?” she asked her husband. He didn’t. So the little boy left with a skull and cross bones painted on his cheek.
Have you watched No More Boys and Girls on the BBC? They are experimenting with creating a gender neutral classroom and looking to see what impact this has on the children’s self-esteem, communication skills and achievement. “It’s political correctness gone mad!” is the response of some. A minority of people said the same about my article on the racial stereotypes pundits and journalists apply when talking about black footballers.
But maybe if our boys were raised to be less blokey, more in touch with their feelings, and accepting of things that are deemed stereotypically feminine, our football stadiums wouldn’t have grown men who embarrass themselves when a female doctor or assistant referee takes to the pitch. Maybe footballers coming out wouldn’t be an issue.
When Andy Carroll comes to Old Trafford, and again, I presume this isn’t the only stadium where it happens (although he is tarred with the “scouse bastard” brush that anyone who has worn the Liverpool shirt suffers and that might explain the extra attention he’s given), with his hair in a ponytail, the banter is out in full force.
“Are you a man or a woman?” has been sung, “get your tits out for the lads”, and “Carroll, show us your tits”. No, he’s not a woman. He’s not homosexual. He’s a heterosexual man with long hair. And the crowd can’t cope. If a man with long hair is a target for ridicule you can only imagine how they would react to an openly gay player.
Football fans sing about people dying to score points. They sing about a player’s rumoured illegitimate children and their children that have died. Anti-semitic chants are sung, as well as mimicking the hiss off the gas chambers, by fans who are rivals to Tottenham Hotspur. Makes you proud, doesn’t it? Fans will literally sing about anything to get under the skin of the opposition. They want to make the rival players and fans boil over. They don’t care about the depths they have to sink to in order to get there. It’s banter, ok?
It’s great that Pogba is speaking out and saying that homosexual footballers would be safe in the Premier League but, sadly, in 2017, that just isn’t true. Football fans look for anything that will hurt a player to rile them up. Anything that makes a footballer stand out makes them a potential victim for rival support.
Racism used to be a huge issue for English football and, while it hasn’t been eradicated yet, it’s so much better than it used to be, although on the continent, there is still plenty of work to be done. Certain clubs attract a racist element too but it’s rare that it’s heard vocally in the ground. The Adebayor chant is as bad as I’ve witnessed at Old Trafford, and I voiced my displeasure about it at the time (eight years ago, Jesus!). But generally, from my experience at the games, players are not the target for racists anymore.
This season, 33% of Premier League footballers are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. It becomes harder for racists to spout their bile when their star players aren’t white. BAME footballers are now the norm in English football so they are less likely to be targets, for their race at least, for the fans (but we still have a way to go in getting the language from ‘experts’ to match this change).
Homosexual footballers are not the norm though. In fact, as far as we are told, they don’t exist. The first player to come out, and the second, and the third, and however long it will go on for, will be a target. Maybe only the hated rivals will have chants about it, and maybe they will reserve those songs for the pubs rather than the stadium, but the second that player makes a bad challenge, dives, or starts mouthing off to the ref, he will be the victim of homophobic abuse. Just like Sian Massey is called sexist names. Those people likely don’t regard themselves sexist any more than the people abusing gay people would consider themselves homophobic, but for some, a ticket to the football is a pass out of being a decent human for the afternoon. They wouldn’t speak to female or homosexual friends, family or colleagues that way, but at the football it’s different. It’s banter.
But this poses us with a difficult problem. Football fans can get over homophobia and the clubs will have a responsibility to educate and sanction any supporters who take an issue with any gay footballer who comes out in the future. But for football fans to be accepting of homosexuality en masse it has to become the norm. We’re so far away from that. It will take years and lots of openly gay footballers for that to happen.
When the first announces his sexuality, you would hope that many would follow, to speed up the process of acceptance. But when they see the abuse that player gets, how brave do they have to be to volunteer to sign up for the same?
I wish it wasn’t this way. It’s embarrassing for football that it is. But as well-meaning as Pogba’s comments are, depressingly, we are a long way from seeing gay footballers respected by all match-going fans.
Surely we should be better than this.