George Best – there was a player. A right red-blooded bloke. Scored as many off the field as on, if you follow me, at least when the missus wasn’t looking, ha ha. Puts hair on your chest just thinking about it. There are no gays in football. And if you are out there, somewhere, keep it in your pants, boys.
Did you hear about Marcelo? He came out last month to the media. No more hiding, he said, and no mincing words. It’s time to set the record straight. Judge me not on the color of my skin but on the content of my character. You didn’t hear? He’s black – and proud.
But since the big reveal, life in Spanish football has been far from accommodating for Marcelo. Rumors spread fiercely in the Madrid media that Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets abused UEFA’s fair play principles in the third-leg clasico fixture, lashing out against the frizzy-headed Brazilian with a (simian) racial epithet. No Materazzi-style palaver, a full-blown verbal kidney shot with malicious effect. Whether or not Busquets threw the proverbial banana at Marcelo, the fact remains: football is not ready for openly black players.
Openly black players? (Only a parable, readers.) It’s strange notion, hiding something so salient. Skin color is a relatively immutable feature – notwithstanding the blackface portrayals of the early twentieth century (resurrected recently in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tropic Thunder role). Hence, while distasteful language and gestures plague the stadia of England, Spain, and Italy, ‘coming out’ has never been the hurdle that black players must surmount. But it precipitates an important question – if racism still leaves a dark stain on European football, even decades later, how much time must pass before a subject as tacit and guarded as sexual identity becomes a non-issue?
Consider this: gay football’s milestone of the decade came when a footballer in Sweden’s fourth division came out of the closet earlier this year. Two revelations emerge from Gothenberg’s news item of the month. First, Sweden has (at least) four football divisions (Who knew?). Second, equality is a shockingly long way off yet. And it will remain that way for the very simple reason that homosexuality is, ceteris paribus, invisible. One doesn’t simply sprout a tail, or grow six inches taller, or develop a second row of teeth. And because it is so easily hidden, gay footballers (presumably) see no reason to publicly divulge an admittedly polemic identity trait.
And why should they? Save for a series of television commercials in England and a few vague FIFA bylaws, there is no collective impetus for ending homophobia in the sport. Justin Fashanu, the only high profile player ever to come out, is testament to that. His brother disowned him. The black community reacted with disgust (Yes! He was black, too! A double whammy). He couldn’t find a stable job, and wherever he played, his status marker was ‘poof’ (just ask Brian Clough, who managed him at Nottingham Forest). That was twenty years ago, but there’s nothing to suggest the tone would be any different today. Marcello Lippi doesn’t believe there are any gay footballers. Croatian national football coach Vlatko Markovic maintains there is only room for ‘normals’ in his squad. Even Sepp Blatter, resident god of football, quips that gays should keep it in their pants in Qatar 2022. If this is the rhetoric of the sport’s venerated (*cough*) leaders, what can we expect from players in the locker rooms? Or fans in the crowd? What does a blue collar Joe from Newcastle (or a Jose de cuello azul from Zaragoza) throw on the field when a gay center forward comes on as a 68th minute sub?
Some players have already vocalized their support for ending the so-called ‘beautiful game’s’ last untouched taboo. But mere words won’t be enough to effect meaningful change. Eventually, the world will have to cope with the fact that there are at least some (and probably quite a few) gay footballers. Making smart passes and diagonal runs. Sliding in from behind to save goals. Chipping from beyond the 18. Real joga bonito stuff.
As for the masses of adolescent Americans who scoff that “soccer is gay”? Maybe they’re right.