Tackling homophobia, the last taboo in football
“We can give out a signal”, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, “gay footballers should not have any fear of coming out. That is my political message.”
As political messages promoting integration and tolerance go, it certainly beats her famously clumsy assertion two years ago that “multi-culturalism has failed”. But then Merkel has rarely failed to perform well when involving herself in football. For all her ills, the dumpy old conservative appreciates the power of the Beautiful Game, and this weekend will see the political and footballing spheres once again conjoined, as the Bundesliga celebrates its “Integration Matchday”.
Rather than the normal, corporate sponsors, the shirts of Germany’s top flight players will this weekend be adorned with a unanimous slogan: “Geh deinen Weg” (“Go your own way”). The message of integration is primarily in support of young members of the immigrant community but following an interview with an anonymous gay footballer in the German magazine “Fluter”, it is the homophobia debate which has begun to take centre stage.
It is, to use a well worn phrase, football’s last taboo. The game’s institutionally overflowing levels of testosterone dictate that homosexuals have no right to feel as comfortable in a football stadium as they would in normal society. While anti-racism campaigns have long been an integral part of the game’s social responsibility, the war on homophobia remains a side project. It is seldom addressed, and when it is, the person addressing it usually makes a frightful hash of the whole thing.
Take Phillipp Lahm, for example. The national team captain has on multiple occasions urged gay footballers not to come out of the closet, for fear of the repercussions from homophobic fans. A well meaning and unprejudiced sentiment, no doubt, but not one which goes very far to discouraging the fans in question.
How refreshing it is then, to see a greater effort among those in German football to condemn homophobia rather than avoid it. Speaking at the same conference as Merkel, FC Bayern chairman Uli Hoeness became the next unlikely champion of gay rights, saying “I can’t imagine that a gay player would have problems with our fans if they came out. FC Bayern is ready for this problem.”
Hoeness perhaps sounds a little naive. Whatever his utopian view of Bayern’s fans may be, there will certainly be a significant number who would make life difficult for any homosexual player brave enough to go public with their sexuality. Indeed, following the death threats to the Koeln player Kevin Pezzoni from his own fans, any player of any sexuality would be ill-advised to underestimate the football fan’s potential for hatred and intolerance.
But that is not the point. No one is suggesting that all gay players should come out. That after all, is a subjective and personal decision to be taken by each individual under their own terms. The point is that, with statements like Hoeness’ – rather than like Lahm’s – the precedent is set for a no-tolerance approach to intolerance. Just as it once was with racism, when it comes to homophobia, football is at least twenty years behind society. That can only be changed with high profile messages from high profile figures and organisations such as Hoeness, Merkel and the Bundesliga.
So we must welcome the week’s developments. If nothing else, they have sent a message to football’s homophobes that their stance is becoming less and less tolerable. The trouble is the developments are limited only to a week. Once the Integration Matchday is over, the shirts will once again be emblazoned with the likes of Gazprom, Wiesenhof and Volkswagen. Everyone will forget that homosexuality and football can even be mentioned in the same sentence. What football really needs is an Integration Season or and Integration Decade. Anti-homophobia needs to take its place alongside anti-racism and fair play as enduring imperatives for all involved in football. Thus far, that is yet to happen. But at least, in Merkel and Hoeness, we have a start.Tagged in: Bundesliga, FC Bayern, football, gay, german football, homophobia, Kevin Pezzoni, Merkel, Uli Hoeness
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