TFN Editor Hugo Greenhalgh tackles one of football’s uncomfortable home truths…
There was a depressing air of familiarity in some of the responses to Hector Bellerin’s recent appearance at London Fashion Week. The Arsenal defender was photographed in the front row of the event, wearing something that looked a little like a dressing gown, with a pair of Gucci slippers. Rather than simply acknowledging a young footballer might want to do something interesting in the capital on a rare evening out, some publications cut a more vicious tone.
Commenting on Bellerin’s outfit, The Sportsman tweeted, “Get him in the bin, shocking that”. Scottish site Talking Baws wrote, “his latest outing saw him arrive in WOMEN’S pyjamas” (the emphasis is theirs). Others tweeted “She’s lost the fucking plot” and “What a twat”.
What is it that the football community finds so offensive about a confident, cosmopolitan young man enjoying himself? The insinuation here is pretty obvious. In wearing clothes that are a little ostentatious and more flamboyant than the average footballer or fan’s, Bellerin is seen to have crossed the threshold of what is considered acceptable masculinity. Between the lines, they’re saying: it’s not straight, ergo he’s gay.
It’s reminiscent of something England defender Graeme Le Saux wrote in his 2007 autobiography Left Field. “I was ridiculed for reading The Guardian rather than staring at the half-naked women on page three”, Le Saux recalls. Because he shunned laddish, typical football behaviour, rumours of homosexuality followed him through his early career – be it teammates, opposition players, fans in the stadium or from the tabloids.
Times have improved in some ways; as Le Saux notes of his two spells at Chelsea, “I gravitated towards the couple of foreign lads at the club in my first spell and people called me a homosexual. I gravitated towards the mass of foreign lads at the club in my second spell and people called me cosmopolitan”.
Dressing room politics may have evolved since Le Saux’s day but a culture of conformity to masculine norms still prevails. The Premier League has continued to pay lip service to its anti-homophobia drive by backing the Rainbow Laces campaign in the last two seasons, but in reality there is still much work to be done. Stonewall’s research, published around the time of the campaign, highlights a worrying trend among the younger demographic: 18 to 24-year-olds are twice as likely as the overall group to say they would be embarrassed if their favourite player came out as gay and twice as likely to describe anti-LGBT language as “banter”. It’s this sentiment that such language isn’t harmful that is perhaps most worrying.
As football fans, we’re very good at getting excited about ‘sick kits’ and the new Stone Island clobber we’re going to wear to games but when someone comes out in a costume that’s a little outlandish it’s ridiculed. That’s fine as long as it’s harmless – indeed, Rio Ferdinand took a light-hearted dig by photoshopping Bellerin onto a catwalk – but when it’s laced with homophobia, it’s time to recognise that football has a tolerance problem that runs deeper.
As much as it is an issue with older generations too, the 18 to 24-year-olds demographic is where much of football’s culture lies. Rightly sometimes, but often wrongly, it gives it its voice, both in the terraces and online. As long as lad-centric media platforms push a conforming image of what a footballer is supposed to look like, homophobia will rear its head and allow those voices to be heard.
It’s in the group of fans next to you in the ground, jeering at the opposition’s nimble-footed winger to “Get up you tart”. It’s the lads who call you a ‘faggot’ in Sunday league games and don’t see what the wider issue is. And it’s in those who think there’s anything wrong whatsoever with Hector Bellerin attending London Fashion Week in women’s pyjamas.
It’s 2018 and the UK still has no openly gay professional footballers. Until we see a cultural shift, both in the media and in the stands, where such a player would be welcomed, it seems unlikely there will be one any time soon.