Is football ready to abandon its latest taboo?
As a teenager, Colin Martin felt he had to make a choice. For as long as he can remember, his ambition has been to become a professional footballer and make a living doing something he loves. However, he had a feeling that it did not match his identity. Martin was gay, and to his knowledge there was no gay footballer.
He has come to believe that the two cannot coexist. He can either play football, or he can be himself. In his novel, he dealt with choice with cold rationality.
“This doesn’t seem like something I can take with me as I pursue my dreams,” he said of his reasoning. “I was more than ready to be in the closet. Forever.” Or at least, he thought, long enough to “live my dream.”
In fact, this contrast was not so stark. In 2018, when he was 23 years old, while playing for Minnesota United in Major League Soccer, Martin came out as gay. He was thought to be the only openly gay professional footballer in the world on time. He said there were occasional awkward moments with his colleagues, but he found the situation tolerable. His fear was misplaced. His sexuality and career were not in conflict.
Two years later, his “nightmare” came. During a crucial season-ending match with the San Diego Loyals, in the USL Championship, Martin heard an opponent call him a homophobic slur. The referee was informed of this. Martin was fired immediately. The official assumed that Martin was using insults towards him.
What followed was chaotic, confusing, and, from Martin’s point of view, painful. In the footage of the match, the referee appeared confused and lost. Martin’s teammates surround him and explain the misunderstanding. His coach Landon Donovan is pleading with his counterpart Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz to remove the player involved. When he refuses, the San Diego players kneel and walk off the field.
This scene is the climax of German’s film “The Last Taboo.” documentary Charting the experiences of a handful of openly gay players in men’s football over the past half-century. Compared to the story with which the film begins — the ostracism, abuse and suicide of Justin Fashanu, England’s first openly gay professional — it’s hard not to feel encouraged.
Martin may have been abused, and Schantz may not have understood the gravity of the situation, but the player had the support of his teammates, coach and club. They were all willing to sacrifice a game – and a decisive game – for the sake of a principle. This alone shows that football is certainly a more welcoming place now than it was in Fashanu’s days.
So is the story of Jakub Jankto, the Czech international who came out as gay last year. In the weeks following his announcement, there was a great deal of concern in the Czech Republic about how he would be treated. Not by his teammates – they were “fantastic”, as he put it – but by the opposition fans.
In the film, anxiety centers around a match against Banik Ostrava, one of Jankto’s fiercest rivals at the time, Sparta Prague, a few weeks after its announcement. Their meetings are always tense, the kind that calls for riot police and wandering Belgian shepherds. Everyone thinks Ostrava fans will shower Jankto with homophobic abuse. The shameful comeback in football will come to the fore once again.
When match day came, nothing happened. Yankto came in as a substitute. His name was announced on the field. There were no boos, no sarcasm, and no coordinated expressions of homophobia. Run to the field. The game has been resumed. Everyone went on with their lives. “That’s not a story anymore,” said Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Germany international who has come out of retirement.
It is difficult – regardless of the medium, but one can especially imagine in film – to capture the meaning of a story that is no longer a story. Muted disinterest doesn’t lead to a particularly compelling or emotional conclusion. In many ways, it is a triumph, proof that the battle has been won, but it feels somewhat unsatisfying.
Yet it is crucial that those stories are told. That there are more gay players in the men’s game than the few who have come out publicly is not really in doubt, even if the evidence for this is necessarily anecdotal, the mathematics are unclear and the tone of discussion around it falls somewhere between cheerful gossip. And outright witch hunts.
It is equally clear that the majority still feel as Martin once did, as if who they are and what they do are in irreconcilable tension. At one point in “The Last Taboo,” Matt Morton, a player and coach in England’s lower league, lists all the openly gay players in the professional game. It only needs to use their first names.
There’s a chance, of course, that will never change, that football will never create a safe enough environment for everyone to feel comfortable being themselves.
Martin is a little more positive than that. He is, by nature, quite a sunny personality. He has a wealth of stories detailing how difficult it is to come out as a footballer. The fact that he was able to build a steady career to pursue his dream, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a challenge.
However, he prefers not to dwell on the most difficult times. “Telling these stories doesn’t help the next person,” he told the filmmakers. He believes it is more positive to focus on aspects of his life and career that can reassure others that who they are and what they do are not diametrically opposed.
His experience in that game against Phoenix is useful. As his teammates leave the field, Martin lifts his shirt over his head. The thing he feared more than anything was about to happen: his sex life was, quite literally, preventing him and his team from playing football. He is clearly stunned.
And yet, as his colleagues walk past him, they extend their hands to pat him on the back and comb his hair: small, powerful gestures of solidarity and empathy. They couldn’t understand exactly what he was going through, but they knew he was suffering, and they were by his side.
Looking back now, this is what Martin chose to take away from that incident. Not the suffering – painful and intense – but the support he received and the symbolism of that moment. He believes this is what will help others know that the choice between who they are and what they do is not a choice they have to make.
Cancel your plans
Last weekend was noteworthy on the football calendar. In the space of about 24 hours, we had the Madrid derby, a meeting of the main rivals in Italy, and a clash between the two sides. Who will finish second and third In the Premier League. Before, during and after, it felt like the first truly crucial weekend of the season, the moment when the buildup ends and the denouement begins.
However, that was just entertainment; The main event is yet to come. Saturday begins with Jordan’s meeting with Qatar in the Asian Cup final. A victory for the host nation would mean Qatar retaining its position as continental champion. It seems that Qatar is now very good at football. Perhaps that was the goal of the 2022 World Cup all along.
A few hours later, another unsettled fairy tale emerged: Girona, the plucky underdogs in the Spanish title race, which, unfortunately, is owned and operated by a huge corporation. Network of clubs Owned by a nation-state, they travel to Real Madrid, hoping to score another part of their unlikely title challenge.
By these standards, Bayer Leverkusen – Big Pharma FC – and Bayern Munich provide a fairly clear champion. Bayer Leverkusen has not lost this season, and has a historical reputation for suffocation and supervision The brightest young coach in European football. Bayern have won 138 Bundesliga titles in a row, and have become so bored with winning the championship that it sometimes seems like they are trying hard to find ways to collapse.
And then, to cap it all off, Sunday brings the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. In a sense, everyone here is a winner: a win for the host nation, Ivory Coast, would be a stunning finale to a tournament that started so poorly that the country sacked its coach. A Nigerian victory would signal the restoration of Africa’s potential superpower. Either way, it may be helpful to clear your journal.