Homosexuality in sports can still be a taboo, especially for male athletes. Of course there is some progress, but not enough. For example, only in 2012 (not 100 years ago), the coach of Italy Cesare Prandelli encouraged homosexual players to declare themselves and not live in fear anymore. The main topic wasn’t homosexuality itself, but possible retaliations from teammates and supporters.
The exhortation fell on deaf years, only Diego Milito, former Inter and Argentina striker, publicly sided with Prandelli, while Antonio Di Natale (Udinese striker) statement caused a sensation. He said that it wouldn’t be easy for a homosexual football player to stand up. Public opinion accused Di Natale to be homophobic, actually it was more a picture of the current situation more than an endorsement to intolerance. On the other side, though, we can argue that this silent behavior will never change things.
As we said, there is a slow progress. Last year Albin Ekdal, midfielder of Sampdoria, spoke at the European Parliament for the initiative Football vs Homophobia month of action. The Swedish player talked about the need of awareness on this issue and on the fact that the real and the ideal are far away: only eight players declared themselves as homosexuals.
Those (statistically) hiding aren’t to blame. They’re probably scared that their career and life would turn to hell, as precedents aren’t comforting. Graem Le Saux, French full-back who played for a lot of years in England, wrote in his autobiography that rumors of a (not even real, for whatever it’s worth) homosexuality influenced him so much professionally that on the day of retirement he felt relieved.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, German midfielder who also played in England (Aston Villa, West Ham) and Italy (Lazio) came out as homosexual, but only after he retired, confirming that it would have been impossible to do it while in activity. Talking about Lazio, in the 90’s, there were rumors of a relationship between Vladimir Jugović and Alessandro Grandoni, after they were both sold on the same year. We don’t know if this gossip was true or not, it doesn’t matter, but it’s an example of a hard to defeat mentality.
If that happened in the 90’s we can just imagine how it was in the 30’s, during fascism. Luis Monti was a midfielder who played 1930 World Cup with Argentina and then was naturalized Italian, becoming world champion in 1934. They say that he played in a particularly rough way to “compensate” homosexuality. One of his teammates in Juventus, Felice Borel, in an interview many years later, revealed that Monti acted in a predatory way towards him during a party with a lot of alcohol.
There were rumors of “unacceptable” relationships among Monti, some managers and Juventus coach Carlo Carcano, whose 4 championships in a row record resisted until 2019. Carcano was sacked in the middle of the season in 1935 and not because Juventus was losing too many games. On the contrary, his substitute Carlo Bigatto won the title.
Another Italian famous example is during 1982 World Cup in Spain. Italy won the competition, but started it really bad. The press went very hard on the team, and that’s legitimate. What wasn’t legitimate was the pressure put on Antonio Cabrini and Paolo Rossi, “accused” of being homosexuals. Then Rossi, basically null in the first games, scored six times in the last three matches (three times against Brazil), and everything else was forgotten.
The saddest story was the one of the Nigerian player Justin Fashanu. Justin was a promising striker, in Norwich and then Nottingham Forest. But he soon starts a downward trend. He got injured, he spends too much money. Worst of all, he frequents gay clubs. He ends up in North America (not the best option for a football player), then in the English minor leagues. In the meantime he declares himself reborn as a Christian.
His homosexuality was an open secret. His trainer in Leyton, Frank Clark, suggested him to overcome his fears and stand up publicly. On the opposite side, Justin’s brother John (who also played in England) is afraid of the consequences. It seems that he even offered money to not make this story public. At least Justin said so.
Justin tried to refresh his image, but ended up in a sex scandal after the death of a conservative member of the Parliament, Stephen Milligan. Fashanu, or maybe his manager, sold false declarations to tabloids, but that’s a boomerang. He’s dropped by his Scottish club, the Hearths of Midlothian, went back to the United States and started a new career as a coach in Maryland. But it’s not over. Justin Fashanu is accused by an underage boy of sexual abuse. Justin denied, saying that the boys was consenting and then blackmailed him to keep the story secret.
He escaped in England, once again, he had to defend from too many accusations, included giving alcohol to minors. But now is not able to face scandals anymore and kills himself.
The English historian James Anthony Mangan asserts that homophobia in football dates back to the comradely, almost military origins of this sport, in British colleges of the end of the XIX century.
According to a research conducted by the British association Stonewall: 72% of football supporters have heard of homophobic abuse; one in five 18 to 24 years old would be embarrassed if their favorite player came out; young people are twice as likely to say anti-LGBT language is harmless if meant as banter.
Something similar happened to the Danish winger Viktor Fischer, former promise of European football but now back to Copenhagen. The absurdity, Fischer said, is that labeling someone as homosexual is still perceived as offensive. “There’s a cultural problem in football, based on being tough, on silence, because that should make you strong”. And that happens in Denmark, considered one of the most progressive countries.
It’s not just a football problem, but of male sports in general. The Institute of Sociology and Gender Studies of German Sport University of Cologne realized a poll on a sample of 5500 LGBT people in the European Union, for the Erasmus + Outsport project, coordinated by AICS, Italian Association of Culture and Sport.
90% of the sample recognizes a homophobia issue in sports, 20% has abandoned an activity to avoid discrimination and the percentage rises up to 50% when it comes to transgender people. The European average of those who didn’t reveal their sex orientation is around 30%, but reaches 41% in Italy and 45% in Hungary. 16% has been subjected to at least one discriminating episode, 50% of them came from teammates.
Overseas is not going much better. In 2003, the basketball player Jason Collins has been the first male athlete in the three main American sports (baseball, football, basketball) to declare his homosexuality. After seven years, none in the NBA followed his example.
According to Collins, one of the explanations might be that someone isn’t ready yet. “You can’t underestimate how good it feels to control your own story”, he said, “being able to tell your truth is, to live an authentic life versus having that stress, that fear of ‘is today going to be the day that someone figures it out?’”.
It’s a difficult step, that’s why it would have a great impact. The whole environment (sports and non) needs to create the right conditions to go beyond shame and worries.
And finally, months for action against homophobia will be superfluous.
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