Set up in 2010, the Football v Homophobia campaign continues to grow and shine a light on key issues within the sport
“I remember it very well – it was absolutely freezing!”
Lou Englefield smiles as she casts her mind back nearly a decade, to February 2013.
She recalls standing, shivering, at the side of an all-weather pitch at Liverpool’s academy in Kirkby, watching a game between the Mersey Marauders and Wolverhampton Harts. “We were a bit concerned about how many would come, thinking it might be a case of six people turning up wearing the T-shirts and that would be it, but we had 100 people running around on this pitch.”
Englefield is the co-founder of Football v Homophobia (FvH), an organisation that’s been doing just that – running around, organising and promoting the programme – since 2010
An experienced coach who was coaching women and girls at Crewe Alexandra Ladies FC when she began FvH, Englefield wanted to create a group that would help football become more inclusive for everyone. She soon realised this wasn’t going to be an easy task.
“In the early days it was difficult. We had a lot of opposition from people that weren’t even within football, but would come out and say ‘football is for men, not women, don’t try and change things’ – we were constantly battling against those kinds of comments.
“But we carried on and the momentum has just got bigger and bigger, and there is now a real acceptance that people can be who they want to be within football – it has changed massively.”
Englefield says she doesn’t think FvH would have been as successful if women were involved in the game.
“We wouldn’t have the backing, for example, of Stonewall, who are incredibly supportive to us; we couldn’t be where we are without them. “But if women were involved in football, it would still be very hard for this particular campaign because the men really do run the sport .”
This is why Englefield believes there is still more to do within men’s football. “There are issues over homophobia in the women’s game of course, but it would be difficult for them to see this as an issue of gender too, whereas with the men’s game, they can say ‘oh, it’s because I am gay that this is an issue for me’
It is not just on the pitch where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people can expect to face problems within football – homophobia also occurs in the stands
This was brought into sharp focus during Euro 2012, when the fans of the Russian national team were reported to have directed anti-gay slurs at themselves during a match against Poland.
England and Chelsea player Graeme Le Saux, who came out as gay in 1999, was verbally abused by Leeds United fans back in 1997 when he returned to Elland Road with Blackburn Rovers after leaving for Chelsea earlier that year. On that occasion, the culprit was later identified and banned from attending football matches for three years.
What’s been happening
Le Saux believes that much of the abuse he received when he first came out could be attributed to the stick other players were giving him over his relationship with model and pin-up boy Sophie Anderton. “It wasn’t as simple as homophobia,” he says. “It was those players who were giving me a bit of banter about going out with a girl – flamboyant footballers were seen as a threat to their masculinity. They didn’t like it because it unsettled them – they hadn’t had that challenge before.”
These days, Le Saux can be seen on TV screens commentating and analysing games. The abuse he received during his playing days has not adversely affected him: “I didn’t want to waste my energy worrying about what people were saying to me. I would rather spend it doing things that were positive; that helped people.”
Le Saux is in favour of having an openly gay player in the game, but when I ask him about whether someone would be facing abuse if they came out within football now, he highlights the importance of it being done in a supportive environment: “There are some really good people who work behind the scenes in football, but the problem is that it’s still perceived as a very macho environment. It would be difficult for someone who works in the game to come out if their friends and work colleagues were not supportive. It needs to happen more often, but how many people are brave enough?”
I try to speak to players within football, but I am told that none of them will talk to me on the record about homophobia in football.
While many within the game are reluctant to be named at this time because gay players may not feel comfortable coming out due to homophobic attitudes still present in society, one player who did agree to speak anonymously said he has never experienced any homophobia while playing at any of the eight clubs he has been signed to over the years .
He says: “I don’t think it is as much ignorance as just a lack of awareness and education, and that’s something we need to address. I don’t think it is intentional – they just haven’t had the chance to learn about it.”
During the course of my conversation with this player, however, he states that he has always felt comfortable in dressing rooms during his career because “you would expect to see lads naked and changing together before games, but I have never had any issues or problems with anyone .”
The figures back up this anonymous player’s experience on the front line. Last month, a study by gay rights charity Stonewall reported that 72% of football fans have never heard anti-gay remarks at a match .
Campbell, who recently took over as the new head of the FA Inclusion Advisory Board, is optimistic about tackling homophobia in the game: “We know that the majority of football fans, within and outside of our stadiums at home or abroad, are a credit to both themselves and our great sport. They support their teams passionately but attentively, respectfully and responsibly – most importantly they want to have fun.
In time, it is hoped that most if not all players and supporters will read and listen to the first-hand stories of successful gay footballers who have experienced homophobia, and feel empowered enough to stand up and speak out against it; we should not underestimate what a difference this can make .
By raising awareness of these issues within football, perhaps one day all players – whether they are gay or straight – will feel comfortable enough to play with their heads held high, and within that environment it will be more likely that they can thrive in their given professions.
“I think football is great at tackling homophobia,” Le Saux says. “But it’s still a very macho world. It needs more people coming out.”