The world is changing and so should male sporting culture.
Josh Cavallo, a 21-year-old Australian football player, recently came out as gay on Twitter, making him the world’s only openly gay top-tier male footballer. In the video he uploaded, he stated: “Growing up I always felt the need to hide myself because I was ashamed. Ashamed I’d never be able to do what I love and be gay.” While his announcement has largely been greeted with support from fellow players and fans, Cavallo still noted that he would be scared to play at the FIFA 22 World Cup in Qatar due to the severe homophobic laws the country enforces – punishment for homosexuality or homosexual acts includes harsh imprisonment and in extreme cases, the death penalty. The reality is clear: queer football players must choose between playing at the highest level, in this case at the World Cup, a situation that ultimately jeopardises their safety, or alternatively hiding their identity from their friends, teammates and family. This is indicative of how embedded homophobia is within men’s football culture.
While people of all genders in sport face homophobia, the criticism is much higher in men’s football, as seen by the fact that over 40 lesbian and bisexual players took part in the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. It’s important to note that the locations for the men’s tournaments have recently maintained a certain pattern – many of the men’s FIFA World Cups often take place in countries that are not LGBTQ+ friendly, such as Qatar, Russia and South Africa, while women’s FIFA World Cups have recently been in LGBTQ+ accepting countries such as Australia, Canada, and Germany. Men’s football culture clearly does not recognise the difficulty of being a queer player in the professional game, not even enough to ensure their safety, which is likely why so few male footballers have come out as queer. Homophobia, in this instance, seems to be rooted in patriarchal norms and toxic masculinity, commonplace in all football cultures, professional or amateur to this day.
Football in the UK is often associated with violent and severe fandom. Homophobic chants can be heard at football grounds across the UK, from jeering at Liverpool to ridicule at Leeds. However, this malicious attitude not only applies to LGBTQ+ people as boisterous football fans, often known as “ultras” have been found to cause damage to people and places, even close to home in Glasgow. Angry fans are often seen instilling unnecessary fear into others, immersed in a sport that is so much more than a game – it’s now one of the most popular cultures worldwide. Yet, the sport does not need to be associated with such hostile negativity.
Rugby is an excellent example of a competitive sport that does not carry the same level of exclusion, especially with respect to its queer players. In the UK alone, many openly gay men play, and their sexuality is largely accepted amongst their teammates and the media. While homophobia is still very much present in this sport, we can see improvement through players’ willingness to come out and by extension, the acceptance by their club and teammates. While the sport is not as popular as football on a global level, and although the players are equally competitive, there appears to be a more gentle attitude from fans, with less hostility and a better reception. Yet the changing room is another issue, as the prevalence of homophobic slurs is still distinctly high in a sport that is supposedly supportive of their queer counterparts.
Although there have been attempts to improve homophobia in football, there is more to be done. Since 2013, The Premier League and EFL have participated in a Rainbow Laces campaign to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, urging fans to “Lace-Up and Speak Up”. This action includes swapping out the club crests on corner flags with the pride flag, players wearing rainbow shoelaces and the inclusive pride flag being shown between cuts when matches are played on the television. While this campaign is a step in the right direction in raising awareness for the issue at hand, more should be done to look after the safety of queer players. Homophobia will not be erased until the toxic masculinity in football is addressed.
Tackling homophobia does not seem to be a priority for professional football leagues. While different countries should always be allowed representation in hosting the FIFA World Cup, allowing the games to take place in a country as corrupt and unsafe as Qatar is not only unfair to the players, but also to fans and aspiring athletes. The tournament being held in Qatar sends a thinly veiled message that suggests queer men are not welcome into the sport and therefore alluding that their safety is not important.
This issue needs to be addressed globally, of course, but change can start smaller, too. The “bro” culture that is often seen amongst student athletes is a great place to start. By calling out toxic masculinity and homophobic jokes at the beginning, a precedent can be set regarding what is and is not acceptable. As university students, it’s our job to make this change early on. If we want a future where LGBTQ+ players won’t have to worry about being hate-crimed at a game, we need to hold each other accountable.
This homophobic attitude in football is an embarrassment to the sport because it does not represent what the game is supposed to be. Football matches are meant to be an opportunity for communities and players to come together. These matches are meant to give athletes a purpose and a sense of enjoyment from being a part of a team that represents where they’re from. Football is supposed to be unifying, not excusatory towards groups of people due to their sexual orientation.