Here’s Why World Cup Soccer Doesn’t Have Any Openly Gay Players

The sport’s fans have been notoriously hostile when it comes to diversity.

(Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

Jun 13, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

A diverse roster of players from 32 countries from around the world traveled to Brazil this week for soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup. From Bosnia to Ghana, Croatia to Cameroon, the fields will be teeming with players of all cultures and backgrounds.

Despite the vast spectrum of flags the players will be playing under, there’s one missing: the rainbow one.

There will be no openly gay players participating in this year’s games, an anomaly considering the U.S. alone has seen an increasing number of professional and college level athletes come out of the closet in recent years.

“On the international stage you don’t see as much progress,” said Wade Davis, executive director of You Can Play, a group that advocates for equal treatment of LGBT players in sports. The reason for the lack of visibility of gay athletes in soccer may be “because there has been violence that has been directed toward people who are viewed as ‘different’ or ‘other’” in the sport, he said.

A lot of soccer fans say they are ready for a high-profile, out player. Seventy-nine percent of fans in Sweden and Denmark said they’d be comfortable with someone on their national team being gay, according to a poll conducted by British LGBT charity Stonewall and a Swedish app developer. The poll gathered responses from 30,000 fans in what organizers say was the “largest-ever poll” of international soccer fans and their feelings about gay players.

Majorities in Portugal, the U.K., Italy, and other countries are also open to having gay players on their team. A slim majority of American fans, 52 percent, say they’re comfortable with having a gay player.

Fans may say they’re supportive, but there is an unfortunate history of racism and homophobia in international soccer, said Davis. Passionate fans can quickly become unruly, turning against rivals with verbal and physical violence known as football hooliganism. Stabbings, riots, bloody fights, and, in extreme cases, gory deaths have resulted from these face-offs.

“In certain countries, lives are at stake,” Davis said.

Overall, physical violence among soccer fans has been on decline in recent years. Increased security, stadium adjustments, and an overall evolving attitude of teams and fans have helped reduce instances of physical violence. But soccer stands remain a place for xenophobia.

Fans still unabashedly yell racist chants, fly derogatory banners, and even go as far as giving the “Heil Hitler” salute at games, particularly in European League play. As recently as this year, soccer fans in Spain made monkey sounds and threw bananas onto the field at black players. Sengalese player Dani Alves flipped the script on racists when he picked up and ate a banana that was thrown at him during a game.

The home team was fined about $17,000 for letting the incident occur, and Alves’ action spurred a social media blitz of fellow athletes and supporters posing with bananas and hashtagging their photos “#weareallmonkeys.” Hefty fines, team sanctions, and player expulsions are all part of FIFA’s recent attempts to crack down on racism. In 2013, the international soccer overseer created a task force on discrimination and ushered in new, harsher punishment guidelines for violating its standards. But many think this isn’t enough.

“It takes actions, not just pretty posters,” former NBA player John Amaechi, who is publicly gay, told the Mirror. “Until they stab in the heart the ignorance, mythology, and nonsense which is around bigotry, then nothing will change.”

Real change takes the initiative of soccer players, like Los Angeles Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers, to come out publicly and set an example for younger players and fans. If an athlete were to come out during the World Cup, it would garner international attention, said You Can Play’s Davis.

“I know for a fact it would have a huge impact on young people,” he said.

In January of this year, German soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out, just a few months after he retired. Hitzlsperger, who played in a World Cup and European Championship, said he announced his sexual orientation as a way to contribute to the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes. He said even though being gay isn’t a major issue in countries like England and Germany, it can still make for uncomfortable times in the locker room.

“I was never ashamed of being who I am, but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays,” he told The Guardian. “You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting.”

But even if the world is ready for gay soccer players, the players may not be ready to become poster boys. Davis, a former NFL player who navigated his own public coming-out process, said he had a very positive experience telling his teammates he was gay. But that announcement can overshadow the rest of your career.

“As soon as you name yourself as a gay individual, the term gay athlete follows you,” Davis said.