Tackling an old soccer stereotype

He goes through the same routine as every other week.

He pulls on his green shirt, ties his boot laces before jogging onto the pitch. How good will his opposite number be? Can another win help the team climb the table? The game is foremost in his mind. All the usual thoughts experienced by a footballer, no matter what the standard. But then, like a derailed freight train heading for the centre circle, it hits him.

Some weeks, it’s there more often than not; that worry swirling around in the back of his mind — ‘What if I’m spotted?’

Sport, especially at amateur level, isn’t supposed to be something which carries serious worries, never mind risking your day job.

Steve* is passionate about the game. It would be imprudent to continue otherwise. Yet for him and a couple of other members of Dublin Devils, the only gay football team in the country, they face a weekly threat.

Being gay and working as a teacher comes with supplementary baggage. If his school’s principal or a parent of a child in one of his classes finds out and makes a formal complaint, legislation exists which could potentially see him lose his job. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act remains a thorn in the side of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community in 21st century Ireland. Essentially, it allows educational, medical and religious institutions to exercise exemptions and discriminate on the grounds of sexuality.

To risk being identified as part of a team that is breaking down barriers and ripping preconceptions to shreds is both admirable and brave when such a serious hazard exists, but Steve says that while he has come out to family and friends, secrecy elsewhere, like on the pitch, can be a major irritant.

“It’s incredibly frustrating, I feel almost like a hypocrite,” he says. “I’m out and proud to family and friends but I’m afraid to be identified when playing in case a parent or another teacher sees me.

“I’m taking a big risk by going out on to the pitch every week but I just need to be careful. I can’t really be myself, based on my profession. It’s the only thing holding me back.

“There’s always an element of secrecy there.

“I’m incredibly proud to be gay but this legislation could see me get fired. It all depends on the principal’s attitude.

“I’m only temporary at the moment and others might think down the line if it’s worth the hassle of hiring a gay teacher permanently because this legislation exists.

“The reality of it is that in this occupation, it remains taboo to be gay. There aren’t too many careers any more where discrimination exists, but teaching is one of those professions.”

A promising GAA player, he was forced to give up some time back as he felt there was a bigger risk of being identified: “I’d always been Gaelic football mad, but there isn’t a gay team in Ireland. That’s why I pulled out of the GAA team because there was always a question of where was I going out at the weekend and I couldn’t really answer truthfully. It became too much, so I had to give up.”

The Dublin Devils project is unique on these shores. Founded in 2005 on a pitch in Tallaght after an advert was put in the gay community newspaper, GCN, the club has grown steadily to around 60 members.

Amongst their ranks — they field an 11-a-side team with an excellent record and small sided teams for more casual players — is a former League of Ireland footballer (there had been two but one retired), several who were promising underage GAA players and people from a host of different professions.

“There were about a dozen who turned up to that first session in Tallaght,” explains secretary Eoghan Martin, “and the club has grown gradually from there. We have around 60 members now, drawing from a wide ranging level of abilities. We’ve players going from Messi to Messy, including a former League of Ireland player who now just wants to play at a more relaxed, casual level.”

From John Terry to Luis Suarez, via ballboys at Millwall and a selection of West Ham supporters, racism has been making far too many headlines cross-channel in the past year. So would it be just to assume that homophobic comments are also a major problem on the pitch?

Francis Larrigan, one of those who has been there since the club’s inception but now only plays for the small-sided team, reckons: “When the referee blows the whistle to start a game, everyone should be concentrating on the football. I’ve only heard one use of homophobic language from one player, when we were winning a game quite easy.”

Then again, it’s not like they parade their orientation when on the pitch. The purpose of the club, while all are of course proud of their backgrounds, isn’t to flaunt their sexuality.

“Our aim is to tackle the misconception that gay men can’t play,” Steve adds. “The reaction, that there hasn’t been much animosity towards us, has been surprising. Then again, we don’t go mincing around the pitch.

“We play hard and win a lot of games and when we come off the pitch after winning a game, the other team more often than not respect us more as footballers.”

But like every team in the world, they just want to play football. That they are gay doesn’t make their commitment, skill or anything else on the pitch any different from any other club in the country.

“It’s not like we’re marching out on to the pitch as if it’s a pride parade, but we haven’t encountered much overt homophobic comments,” Larrigan explains.

Success has been a big feature of their short history. Winners of the IGLFA (International Gay and Lesbian Football Association) 2011 European Championships in Manchester, they will look to retain their title when they host the tournament next June with over 40 teams coming from across the continent to DCU.

Martin says: “We now have extensive links through the IGLFA and we are hosts of the European championships this summer and we’re expecting over 40 teams from all over Europe to participate, including women’s teams.

“Hosting the tournament will be great, especially from a local perspective where it will increase visibility. It’s a big deal in terms of organisation, getting sponsorship and we’ve seen from travelling to previous tournaments that it’s very important to the community.”

However, while the Devils are making their own steps towards breaking down barriers, all within the club are in agreement that a big name player needs to come out for the general misconceptions in the game to be remedied.

Dónal Óg Cusack, of course, has given gay sportsmen an immeasurable profile boost since the release of his book, while Wales’ Gareth Thomas has done the same for rugby. Football, though, appears to have more complications nestled at its roots.

Steve adds: “There are still people out there, high up in Fifa and Uefa even, that don’t believe there are gay footballers. It’s ridiculous. We’re trying to battle the stereotype that gay men can play football.

“Security is the main issue. If a player was hypothetically guaranteed that if he came out, he wouldn’t be targeted, I think we’d see more coming out. But there’s always a risk.

“Knowing they would have the support of their teammates, is a big one too.”

Then again, the past doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for any gay professional player to come out while still playing. Justin Fashanu remains the most well-known case, while Anton Hysen, a player in the not-too-glamorous confines of the Swedish third division, is the only pro openly gay playing at present.

A BBC documentary concluded that Hysen is a ‘global one-off’, but Francis believes that while there would be an initial reaction, other sports indicate that the hype would die down after some time.

“The last time it happened with Justin Fashanu means it’s not overly-enticing for people to come out, but that was 20 years ago and times have moved on,” he says. “When you hear the likes of Max Clifford saying that he knows 10 gay footballers and telling them not to come out, then it looks unlikely that it will happen soon.

“If a player comes out there might be a commotion at the beginning but if you look at Gareth Thomas, and closer to home Dónal Óg, it dies down and they concentrate on their game.”

As Cusack says, more people were concerned with his short puck-outs than his sexuality after the furore died.

When, and the statistics indicate it’s certainly not a case of if, a big name footballer comes out, all that should matter is how he performs on the pitch. Until then, it will be up to teams such as the Devils to fly the flag, and dispel ludicrous notions that gay men don’t or can’t play football.

* ‘Steve’s’ name changed at the request of the player.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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