The Rational Ref

Authorities must make clear to LGBT players that football is for all

As long as awareness and clarity are lacking at the highest levels, LGBT community will be unable to enjoy the game they love

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 3:22am

By the law of averages, there should be many more gay players on the soccer scene than there apparently are at present. How many gay players, in either the men's or women's game, can you name? No doubt, very few.

In Hong Kong, there is at least one team of gay players who are welcomed to play in some of the competitive amateur leagues. But in the officially recognised HKFA leagues, there are no gay players or teams, or none who have openly come out. In any case, if there are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) soccer players in Hong Kong, why should they come out?

The risks in coming out far outweigh the benefits, so it is understandable the world over why LGBT athletes and sports stars generally prefer to keep quiet. Justin Fashanu, who died in 1998 aged 37, was the first openly gay professional soccer player. Two decades passed before LA Galaxy player Robbie Rodgers came out earlier this year. If the positive reactions towards Rodgers, a former Leeds United player, are anything to go by then slowly but surely the tide is turning.

However, Fifa itself does not appear to know whether it is coming or going in terms of gay rights, inclusion and tolerance.

In recent weeks, Fifa president Sepp Blatter has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to clarify his country's vague new legislation prohibiting the "promotion" of homosexuality, especially with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup in mind. This is apparently at the behest of Fifa's new anti-discrimination taskforce chaired by Jeffrey Webb, who is president of Concacaf.

But Blatter himself is mired in controversy about LGBT intolerance. Two years ago he said gay people should "refrain from sexual activity" in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup, out of consideration for the hosts' religious sensitivities.

The reality is discrimination in soccer exists. The very existence of Fifa's anti-discrimination taskforce attests to the problem.

In Hong Kong, although there was the recent racial incident against the Philippines national team and their supporters, there has been no big issue with discrimination against LGBT individuals in soccer. One gay player, Peter Sabine, has played in Hong Kong's amateur leagues for many years without experiencing any intolerance. But there are frustrations, says Sabine. "Soccer poses a difficult arena to come out in and it reflects attitudes of wider society in general," he says. "Because there is a physical element, this can possibly attract a certain machoism. Having played with many teams, I can say 99 per cent of players in amateur football don't care if you are gay, and the majority are supportive, but the odd incident throws me."

The odd incident Sabine mentioned relates to the occasional, casual use of discriminatory terms such as "don't be gay" and "man up" during matches. Liverpool recently added these terms to an official list of unacceptable words.

The way some individuals use terms to group or categorise others can set the tone and reveal how they truly think and feel. For instance, compare Putin's words identifying gay athletes with England manager Roy Hodgson's words identifying players who have gained 100 caps for their country.

Putin said: "I assure you that I work with these people, I sometimes award them with state prizes or decorations for their achievements in various fields."

Hodgson said: "For me personally, it has been a God-send to have those types of people who have terrific experience of playing for England and have experienced the highs and the lows. They are such reliable and consistent players. I am not saying that they have never had a bad game, I am sure they have. But the fact is that you know perfectly well what those players bring to the team."

Imagine for a moment if Putin had used Hodgson's encouraging words and positive endorsement to describe the LGBT community.

For Sabine and other LGBT players, no matter anyone's creed, colour, culture, company or class, they simply love to play soccer. Sabine has upwards of 30 gay players on his books, with straight friends involved as well. "Anyone can join our team and they do," he said.

In Hong Kong, the majority of leagues and competition organisers do not do enough to promote soccer as a more inclusive sport. There are exceptions such as the Football For Life amateur league that promotes "Show Racism the Red Card", which is an anti-racism movement in soccer.

It would be progressive if other local competition organisers publicly clarified their stance on all forms of discrimination. For example, the English FA promotes an Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan, whereby players, managers, clubs and match officials acknowledge, accept and abide by the plan's guidelines.

Furthermore, the FA and Uefa have high-profile campaigns about Respect - which is respect for the game, respect for other players, and respect for match officials. These campaigns can be found on their respective websites. However, the HKFA and the Asian Football Confederation have no such equivalent inclusion and anti-discrimination campaigns.

The HKFA has in the past mentioned it has zero tolerance for discrimination such as racial prejudice and/or the use of offensive language. But there is no information or clear guidelines related to this available from the HKFA or its website.

Despite this lack of awareness and clarity, the game one for all. There are countless inspirational events and stories, such as the World Outgames, Homeless World Cup, World Blind Football Championships, and Shoot for Boots for Africa that promote soccer, and sport in general, to all. To combat discrimination in all its ugly forms and guises, the message of tolerance, equality and acceptance is key.

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