It has been 8 years since Justin Fashanu's tragic death. Fashanu was a talented striker for Norwich City. He also became England's first £1m soccer player when Brian Clough brought him to Nottingham Forest from Norwich. Fashanu was also England's first openly gay soccer player and announced his coming out in a Sun cover feature on 22nd October 1990. But by that time his promising soccer career had been cut short. Clough who brought him to Forest suspected him of being gay, constantly called him a 'bloody poof' and undermined his playing abilities with his homophobic attitude. Clough created a hostile and stressful environment that unsettled Fashanu who failed to score goals and thereon his career never recovered. He then had unsatisfying stints at many clubs never staying too long.
In 1998 a warrant for his arrest was issued by the police for the sexual assault of a 17 year old youth. At the time Fashanu was in the US coaching the Maryland Mania, a soccer club. The charges proved to be bogus but by that time it was too late. Fashanu took his life on May 2, 1998.
Did Fashanu's death foster a more inclusionary attitude in the soccer world? Was Fashanu's death an eye opener to the authorities that one can be a skillful athlete and yet have a different sexual orientation. That both can be mutually exclusive? The answer is, sadly no. An article by the Independent states that despite the advancement of gay rights in other fields, soccer still practices an exclusionary attitude towards gay players. There are still no openly gay soccer players in English professional leagues.
This is despite like Stonewall FC, a number of clubs purely for gay soccer players. Even more remarkable is that equally macho sports like rugby and American football have athletes who have come out and suffered no permanent harm. Admittedly, the numbers are still miniscule with a pervasive "Don't ask, Don't tell" siege mentality. Ian Roberts, the Australian rugby star came out in 1995 when he was at the top of his game. It only enhanced his reputation and won him more endorsements. Der Speigel in a recent article follows the fate of gay soccer players in the Bundesliga, in which a very well known player acknowledges that coming out will end his career. Another player refers to the double life that he leads, officially married with a wife to cover up a long term relationship he has had with a schoolmate. Yet another gave up a promising career because he feared he would bring dishonour to his club if discovered. In fact, soccer fans and teams would be more open to men and women playing together than admitting a gay man into professional soccer. The parody of the predator gay soccer player preying on heterosexual players as bait or worse still, converting them, is still a constant in locker room talk.
There are two big phenomena that have occurred since Fashanu's death that have influenced the world of soccer and both do not augur well for the gay soccer player, one being metrosexuality and the other, the rise of evangelism in the developing world. Oddly enough, the advent of metrosexuality that has injected gays into the social and cultural mainstream has conversely made it potentially even more unsafe for soccer players to come out. The phenomenon of metrosexuality found its most famous practitioner, David Beckham in the late '90s with a ready market in attractive soccer players primping up and turning the image of the sweaty fashion challenged soccer slob on its head. Giorgio Armani was the first fashion entrepreneur to recognize how lucrative this phenomenon could be and used a number of soccer icons from David James to Kaka to promote his clothes and accessories.
At its core, metrosexuality is purely a commercial enterprise, a multibillion dollar industry which everyone at the intersection of soccer and fashion are cashing on. Even players like Andriy Shevchenko and Francesco Totti have opened up stores selling men's haute couture. And like any hugely successful commercial venture that rakes in billions in sales and merchandising, image is everything. The soccer players who indulge in metrosexuality or promote it, also carefully tend to their images of being strongly heterosexual surrounded by attractive women. Victoria Beckham is a perfect counterfoil to her metrosexual husband and with their two children, a tabloid staple. Francesco Totti and Ilary Blasi. Andriy Shevchenko and Karin Pazik. The aggressive heterosexual imagery is ramped up due to the perception that metrosexuality is in part driven by the stereotypical arbiters of style, the gays as in the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. To make sure that there is less to it than meets the eye, this denial sometime takes on a weird form and shape as metrosexual icon Djibril Cisse's refusal to kiss his fellow players after scoring a goal in the fear of being labeled a gay.
This then is the state of affairs in Europe, where the aversion to gay soccer players is rooted in locker room tradition and commercial interests but in a continent where the church is slowly losing its influence and as it declines; elsewhere in the rest of the world, in Asia, South America, and Africa, the rise of evangelism is nascent. The strain of evangelism in these regions is far more conservative than its European and American counterparts. The recent rift in the American Episcopalian association of churches with its admission of homosexual clergy has led to some churches in the US to seek affiliation with Nigeria's ultra conservative Archbishop Peter Akinola's Anglican church, who considers the practice of homosexuality as abhorrent. In fact, the Anglican church seeks to codify the conduct of all its members. Since many of the African countries have ineffectual legislatures, the church now finds itself increasingly in a position to influence government. The African Anglicans are now pressing the Nigerian government to seek punitive action against gays and acts deemed as gay behaviour. Archbishop Akinola supports a bill in Nigeria’s legislature that would make homosexual sex and any public expression of homosexual identity a crime punishable by five years in prison.
Most of these churches are doing yeoman work in poverty alleviation in these countries but also extracting their price as they demand correct behavior with regards to sexual orientation and womens reproductive rights on narrow theocratic grounds. As in Nigeria, a similar phenomena is sweeping Ghana, Cameroun, Mali, South Africa, and other parts of Africa. The regressive attitude seen generally towards gays in these countries does not bode well for the secretly gay African soccer star who also deals with the fact that he is considered a role model in his community and his talent discovered by a church youth program. His secret disclosed would not just mean career suicide but a life fraught with danger as he would run afoul of some arbitrary law that defines acceptable human behaviour.