Soccer is part of my culture. But am I a welcome part of soccer culture?

Two soccer players kicking a ball
Photo: Shutterstock

In the United Kingdom, soccer is firmly part of our culture. And that’s not something I usually have a problem with. I like nothing more than sitting down with a beer on a Sunday to watch two or three Premier League games or going to the pub with friends or family on a weeknight to watch a game. 

When there’s a World Cup or European Championship, I’ll base my social life and work schedule around the games. I mean, I’ve cried over soccer before now. 

I’ve often been told that I don’t look like I’d be interested in soccer. I put this down to being openly bisexual and, while perhaps straight-passing, not coming over as overtly masculine. 

I’ll never forget being at the pub with friends during my graduate degree and stepping outside in my Birmingham City jersey. A couple of Aston Villa supporters saw it, and we chatted for a few minutes, discussing the rivalry between the two clubs until they returned inside. I turned back to my friends, and they exclaimed, “Adam, you just went straight!” It’s a form of code-switching almost; I felt as if I had to put on a front to adopt a more stereotypically masculine demeanor. 

The thing is, soccer has a serious homophobia problem, and it often makes me feel unwelcome.

I feel as if I have to change myself when I’m watching soccer. Those throwaway comments you hear in the stands or read on Twitter take their toll. It’s an uber-masculine, heterosexual environment, and it can be exhausting to conform constantly. I love soccer, but I don’t always love the culture surrounding it. And that’s a shame because I love the atmosphere at the stadium or the pub – the overpriced beers, coffees, and pies, and the way that soccer has the potential to unite us regardless of age, gender, and sexuality. 

I struggle to know where I fit in sometimes. Too queer for soccer, but then it feels like my interest in soccer makes me unwelcome in some queer circles, as if I’m an imposter. 

A recent joint statement from Football v Homophobia, Pride in Football, and Women in Football highlighted what they described as an “alarming rise” in homophobic incidents in men’s professional soccer in England. Last year half of soccer fans described homophobia as a serious problem in soccer. 

And then you’ve got the three in ten soccer fans who, in 2016, said they’d be uncomfortable seeing two men kissing at a match. And, ridiculously, eight percent of fans said they’d stop supporting their team if a player came out as gay. 

As far as I’m concerned, once you find your team, you’re with them for life, yet almost one in ten fans will throw that away because a player might be gay. 

In the 1990s, Graeme Le Saux, a former England player, had to face rumors about his sexuality despite having a wife and children. This was simply because his lifestyle – and he went to university and read The Guardian newspaper – differed from that of a typical soccer player of that era.

25 years on, footballers still face homophobia if they stand out from the norm. Suppose a player is interested in fashion, for example, or champions progressive causes. In that case, you won’t have to look very far on social media to find somebody questioning their sexuality (at best) or sending them homophobic abuse (at worst).

For a lot of people, this will sound ridiculous. It’s entirely possible, of course, to be interested in football and fashion simultaneously; an interest in style doesn’t mean that someone is gay. But if they are, they should be free to share that information if and when they feel comfortable doing so. 

It’s true that, in some ways, progress is being made. The case of Justin Fashanu, the first British player to come out as gay who died from suicide in 1998, might feel a world away, but it’s recent history. He died less than a year before I was born. If he were still alive, he’d be in his early 60s. His brother, who disowned him when he came out but has since expressed remorse, has had a successful TV career after retiring from soccer.

And we do have openly gay professional soccer players. When Jake Daniels came out at 17, it felt momentous. While there will always be social media trolls, the reaction to the Blackpool player’s announcement was largely positive. Away from the UK, there are openly gay players in the US and Australia too – perhaps one of the most high-profile gay footballers is Robbie Rogers, who played for the US but retired in 2017.

But then there was the case of Iker Casillas. Often thought of as one of the best goalkeepers in history, with a trophy cabinet that would make American football quarterback Tom Brady blush, he tweeted, “I hope you respect me: I’m gay” in October last year. A former Spain teammate replied, “It’s time to tell our story.” 

Casillas’ tweet was deleted after an hour, and the player apologized to the LGBTQ+ community for the “joke” after widespread criticism, including from openly gay players. 

But what was just as disappointing was the reaction. Casillas’ follower count decreased sharply, presumably because of homophobic fans, and Twitter became a cesspit of homophobic bile. 

One soccer player refused to play in a game last year because his team was wearing the rainbow flag for the International Day of Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Many fans and fellow players supported him. Another claimed that his former teammates said they’d want any gay players to leave their club.

Being a queer soccer fan, you get used to the homophobia from fellow supporters. But when it even comes from the players – those you grew up idolizing – it’s even more hurtful. I remember watching Casillas win the World Cup with Spain as a child in 2010, one of my most formative soccer memories. More than anything, the Twitter controversy left me feeling disappointed and despondent.

The state of men’s soccer is in stark contrast to the women’s game, where gay players are commonplace – some of the world’s best players have been queer. That’s genuinely great to see and it hammers home how far men’s soccer has to go. 

And looking more closely at the UK, again, it’s impossible to analyze homophobia in soccer without looking at the historical context. Looking at how Fashanu and Le Saux were treated, yes, but also the hooliganism of the second half of the 20th century. Many hooligan firms – groups of fans with a reputation for violence, destruction, and rioting – had links to the far right, where racism, homophobia, and misogyny would be interlinked. These firms would often fight each other before, during, or after games, but could also cause trouble among members of the general public.

Then there’s the rising LGBTQ+ sentiment today, too. The UK has a well-documented transphobia problem, and the “groomer” rhetoric from the US has reached over the Atlantic too. Combine these both with the sort of toxic masculinity espoused by the likes of social media influencer Andrew Tate, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  

Hooliganism today might be the preserve of teenagers looking for something to do at the weekends, but aggressive social conservatism remains prevalent. 

That said, I don’t think that most supporters are homophobic. And I don’t think most players, coaches, or managers are either. I like to think that if Birmingham had a gay player, he’d be supported by most of us associated with the club. 

But that’s not enough. One instance of homophobia in soccer or, indeed, anywhere is one too many. 

The next great English player could be gay. Or, he could be put off from playing because of the homophobia that still exists. And people like me are deterred from taking a closer interest in soccer. Something needs to change. 

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