Homosexuality is one of football's final taboos – a fact acknowledged and tackled by a Chelsea star this week. Dan Levene wonders why more players aren't saying the same.
The silence on the subject of gay footballers has long been deafening. The tragedy of Justin Fashanu, oft held-up as a cautionary tale supporting either side of the closeted debate, looms large over the game.
Premier League football, a macho game with broad appeal in diverse international cultures, has an issue with same-sex relationships. Thus it was heartening to see one Chelsea star stick their head above the parapet, to celebrate the presence of gay players we know are stars in likely every club in our league, and to call on the scourge of homophobia to be ended.
In a bold and brave blog, Chelsea Ladies and England left-back Claire Rafferty spoke passionately in support of those in her own code who had decided there was no bar to coming out, and slated the “keyboard warriors” on social media who may be preventing others from doing the same.
Writing for the first time for Chelsea's official website, Rafferty was scathing of the misogynistic and homophobic assertion of some that women's football is “full of dykes”.
She made it clear that lesbians were very welcome in the game and that they are visible largely because, unlike the men's game, there is an inclusive atmosphere that enables gay women to identify as such.
The taboo has long been broken in women's football, not least by the readiness of players such as ex-Chelsea, now Arsenal Ladies and England defender Casey Stoney to come out. But while the women's game is in a place where its top names are happy to be interviewed in lifestyle pieces alongside their same-sex partners, the men's game is very different.
Forget about finding an out gay male Premier League star - though it has to be hoped one will announce themselves one day soon - it is difficult enough even getting players to acknowledge the existence of the issue.
The number of players to go there, in the Premier League era, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. When Chelsea's own Florent Malouda spoke about the need to end homophobia in the game back in 2010, his was very nearly a lone voice.
Some years ago the Kick It Out campaign broadened its anti-racism campaigning to fight against all forms of discrimination in the game – yet, still, getting stars to talk about that new wider focus is not easy.
Florent Malouda has spoken out against homophobia in the past
Image credit: AFP
I once interviewed a club's Kick It Out player ambassador, who spoke with the expected degree of passion and pride about the fight to broaden opportunity for black players, and rid the game of the remaining racist bigots. But when I turned to the subject of the fight against homophobia, given a whole section in the accompanying press pack, I received a terse: “Well I'm not gay, am I, so what would I know about that?”
That attitude, expressed perhaps five years ago, is probably now out of step with the general world view of our country's professional footballing classes. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the dressing room is now a more inclusive and understanding place.
Rafferty touches on that in her piece, suggesting not only that many men's teams will have gay players, but also that in some cases they may be out among their team-mates.
The argument that alpha male players would not be accepting of a gay man in their midst seems almost quaint, in a day and age when no more an alpha male than Wayne Rooney moves in social circles with Elton John.
Rafferty is careful not to blame anyone for this perceived intolerance, though does say that more openness leads to greater acceptance, which in turn leads to more openness – in a form of virtuous circle.
And that is just another reason why she should be praised for her entirely unprompted, and very welcome, attempt to get this particular ball rolling.