17 May 2019

By Sam Cook

 

For a semi-professional team hailing from England’s sixth tier, gaining unprecedented levels of international headlines is no mean feat. Yet on the 16th February of this year, as the social media campaign of Altrincham Football Club came to its climax, flooding the press in the process, it seems their attempts didn’t quite manage to reach all 1,328 visitors on the day.

 

Come kick-off during his team’s home game against Bradford Park Avenue, club director Bill Waterson was still explaining to a number of fans inside the Moss Lane ground why their team were not sporting their usual red and white stripes. Though stripes remained, the two-colour binary quite appropriately made way and instead the team emerged from the tunnel clad in shirts modelled solely on the LGBT rainbow Pride Flag.

 

“Why are we doing this? We play in red and white don’t we?” some perplexed spectators were heard asking from the terraces. “There’s even been a few older fans” recounted Waterson, “to whom we’ve had to explain what the rainbow flag is, believe it or not.”

 

Altrincham F.C.’s stand of solidarity with the LGBT+ community and the Football v Homophobia campaign marks their commitment to help rid football of the evil that is homophobia. Their pledge is unprecedented, becoming the first professional club to swap the custom of the traditional home jersey, for the whole of the flag.

 

The timing and nature of such reactions, occurring all within the organisation’s month of action, as well LGBT+ History Month and likewise the organisation’s 10-year anniversary, pose a myriad of questions. Those unknowing fans warrant reflection upon the current climate of homophobia in football. To what extent do football stadiums worldwide reflect the diverse societies in which we now live? And, does the reach of the sport reflect more a source of untapped potential wherein messages of inclusivity could be heard or rather the last bastion of ignorance unwilling to change?

 

“Once they’ve understood, they’ve got fully behind it,” affirms Waterson, advocating the importance of having such conversations no better reflected than through those for whom it was tragically too late. The club’s efforts demonstrate, not only a responsibility in making sure the love of both playing and watching are felt by all, but here the game is failing.

 

In 2014, Football v Homophobia took over the delivery of ‘The Justin Campaign’. Originally conceived in 2010, The Justin Campaign came in response to the prevalence of homophobia at both grassroots and professional levels 10 years after the tragic suicide of Justin Fashanu in 1998. Fashanu is widely accredited to be the only male player to come out publically while still playing, with the shock of his death leaving a deep wound in which the deepest fears of marginalisation were seemingly compounded. Through one man’s plight, the importance of fighting for fair representation and participation for the LGBT+ community across football became inescapable.

 

In a sport reaching the lives of millions worldwide, Fashanu’s alienation proved that his identity as homosexual and footballer didn’t correspond to conceptions of what a footballer should be. It likewise illuminated the failure of a support system, whereupon instead of the solace of a united community, Fashanu found ignorance and malignity. In the wake of the tragedy, progress was stifled before it even began. The fatality enclosed the possibility for the following generations to revel in greater freedoms, and instead left a vacuum of fear in which the game remains currently stuck.

 

Though in today’s world it is common for top-tier international stars to sport rainbow laces or be led out by a captain wearing a rainbow armband, these visual steps of support come amidst fresh incidents of homophobic abuse across both the men’s and women’s game.

 

On the 10th of January President of Colombian Football Club Deportes Tolima Gabriel Camargo described women’s football as “a tremendous breeding ground for lesbianism”, only to be absolved through a meagre issue of apology. Camargo’s comments join similar reports from the BBC in Wales in November of last year, where a 13-year-old was taunted in a similar manner by her peers and then advised by her teachers to refrain from playing. The suggestion, is that far and wide a focus upon the sexuality of female players remains a crude reminder of the work yet to be undertaken in an otherwise rapidly progressing sport. More worryingly, however, is the breadth of which derogatory conflations between female participation and homosexuality are continually being used interchangeably as a slur.

 

Two weeks after the event in Colombia, the men’s game was subject to homophobic attacks. Former England International and new manager of Macclesfield Town, Sol Campbell, faced what UK newspaper ‘The Independent’ reported as “disgusting” chants from the home supporters. The incident followed a backlash toward another pro-LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall and its Rainbow Laces campaign: receiving over 43,000 negative reactions online solely in response to Manchester United’s avowal of support on twitter. Whether heeding from high-standing stakeholders, fans attending the games or online abuse, evidence shows a persisting problem within the game, regardless of gender, surrounding notions of identity.

 

The frequency and persistence of such incidents suggests that, despite attempts to push intolerance out, undercurrents of discrimination remain within the mainstream. Whereby, homophobic abuse associates playing football to hackneyed conceptions of masculinity and gender: a male game, reserved for heterosexual players. The image of a football player, one shaped in the past, constructs a protagonist upon outdated notions of identity and sexuality within the game’s dominant narrative, leaving those who take up the sport bearing the brunt of such narrow assumptions.

 

The issue surrounding such ideas of what a footballer is - hugely problematic in itself - then often frames the dialogue through which the game is critiqued. At the mention of homosexuality in football, the ensuing first hurdle propped up by common parlance and inevitably never surmounted, is the lack of an openly gay male footballer. The fixation upon this singular node, in finding answers to a wider issue, must however be considered part of the problem.

 

The tendency to focus upon guessing if and when a male player will eventually come out while still playing, holds a multitude of problems caused by an inherent unwillingness to engage in reflection. It places focus upon the inability of individual men to open up, ignoring issues across other areas of the game and leaving ourselves, alongside the structures of the game, exempt from asking how we as a society can be more accommodating.

 

As Altrincham F.C. takes those steps, the increasing commercialisation of the men’s game has become entwined with conceptions of the sport’s improvement. Diverting from the well-trodden and highly lucrative path is becoming ever-increasingly fenced off through fears of disrupting the game we all know and love. Yet, we must ask ourselves, who is really benefitting and at what cost?

 

Without making lazy comparisons between the two branches of the game, so clearly at different phases in their lifespans and facing unparalleled challenges, the women’s game paints a more inclusive picture. In-team relationships, partners on opposing sides, and openly gay players at the highest level are not exceptional in women’s football and suggest a much safer space for one to be transparent. Such instances seem impossible within the contexts of World Cups in Russia or Qatar or against the backdrop of previous warnings from former Football Association chairman Greg Clarke, that male players should not come out.

 

The likes of Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, integral to the most successful international team in history for the US, have both spoken of the positive impacts of transparency upon their playing careers. Their skill sets at an optimum, are both an asset to the sport and society.

 

The greater transparency, afforded to Rapinoe for example, has led to an engagement in activities off the pitch. Her role in the ’Play Proud’ initiative, one committed to making football a welcoming environment for LGBT+ youth, gives further evidence that the relationship between football and identity can and should be harmonious. The aim of the initiative is to educate and train coaches to create caring and accepting team environments, aware of the positive impact this could have on a young person who is “closeted”, coming out, or simply in the process of discovering their own identity. As the initiative goes to pilot in the North America & the Caribbean region, Rapinoe has expressed regret at not being able to experience the benefits while she herself grew up.

 

Though initiatives like Play Proud and Football v Homophobia are fuelled by worrying findings, they are redefining methods to break through the existing structures that prop up homophobia in football. Intervening at a young age and placing emphasis on communal participation will hopefully ease the burden of individuals and help redefine the contours surrounding the image of a footballer. Though the impact of such initiatives may not immediately bear fruit, Play Proud and the support of Football v Homophobia from Altrincham, recently reciprocated by Conwy Borough, are shaping a new football culture. They are proving that, for football to be made richer and justify its position within the mainstream of a global psyche, it must be made truly welcoming to all of its admirers.

 

This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 10/April 2019. Read more stories from the field of football for good here

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