The love that (still) dare not speak its name

WHAT, then, should we make of the story that Germany’s elegant and lighter brand of football in the World Cup was attributable to the fact that there is a cadre of homosexual players within the team?

And that they would ultimately prove too delicate to win?

The remarks were originally attributed to Michael Becker, agent to international star Michael Ballack.

Becker has neither confirmed, nor denied, that he made them but has since said that the interview was “unauthorised” and that he was “misunderstood”.

In the same week, we learned that Welsh rugby star and former Lions skipper Gareth “Alfie” Thomas has been contacted by Mickey Rourke and his agents to produce a biopic of the most capped rugby player in Welsh history.

Whatever interest ex-boxer Rourke has in the project has nothing to do with his love of the game. Thomas happens to be the only current professional athlete in a team sport in the world who is openly gay. And that’s box office.

It’s a shame that Rourke, who likes to proclaim his Irish heritage and connections, didn’t see the potential in the alternative story of Cork goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack, the first GAA player to declare his sexual orientation.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain more than 40 years ago while in the Republic it took until 1993, and only then under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, for similar latitude to be allowed to same sex couples. Meanwhile The Civil Partnerships Bill passed this summer, while offering recognition over a range of relationship arrangements, still lags behind the continent in some important practical aspects and will, no doubt, come under further legal pressure.

But what is most significant in a sporting context is that there hasn’t been a rush from the ranks of the Mannschaft to follow the examples of Thomas and Cusack, and come out.

And there’s a very good reason for this. Despite the candour of the hurler from Cloyne and the rugby player from Sarn, the overwhelming perception is that public opinion draws a clear, and potentially ruinous, distinction between the sexual preferences of individual sportsmen and women, and those who line up alongside other team members on the field of battle.

The first time I became aware of this issue was in 1976 when a British figure skater called John Curry became successively European, world and then Olympic champion at Innsbruck in Austria in the first games to take place since the 1972 summer massacre in Munich.

Curry, parodied by rivals who would mince across the ice rink when he arrived to train, was a revelation bringing a balletic artistry and stunning interpretation to the sport which would later inspire both Robin Cousins and Torvill and Dean, the revolutionary duo from Nottingham whose perfect score Bolero routine in 1984 remains one of the great Olympic memories.

Curry was outed by the German newspaper Bild between the European and world championships, but no one cared, and it was his creative rivalry with another bisexual skater, Canada’s Toller Cranston, who came third that year in Austria, which has largely formed the sport that we know today.

Ever since Curry, who died of an AIDS-related heart attack at the age of 44, a host of individual sportsmen and women, tennis players, athletes, cyclists, swimmers, have been prepared to declare their sexual preferences, sometimes to make a political point, and sometimes because they have been forced to do so through the attentions of an aggressive and often mendacious media.

But major team sports remain the final frontier. There are no openly gay footballers in England’s top four divisions, although Max Clifford, the publicist, says that he advises several.

And who can blame them, when you consider the dog’s abuse dished out in the gladiatorial atmosphere of league grounds. Where Sol Campbell can be taunted by rabid supporters and Graeme Le Saux, whose cause for offence seemed mainly to be that he read The Guardian, collected antiques and that his middle name was Pierre, could get the same from opposition players. Le Saux (two children, attractive wife) tells an interesting story in his biography which illustrates how well footballers understand the taboos of their game.

He was once teasing Gianfranco Zola — all round nice guy, gentleman and a genius of a player — about his thrifty attitude to money. “I’m going to tell everyone how mean you are,” he joked. Quick as a whipstitch Zola retorted: “Do that, and I’ll tell everyone that you look at me in the shower.”

For years supporters of Brighton — located in the gay capital of England — have become used to opposition supporters greeting them with the song “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?”

But there’s a difference between that generic insult and the gratuitous cruelty which can be delivered against individuals from the terraces... and from within dressing rooms.

The Brazilian World Cup star Kaka once revealed a t-shirt which declared “I belong to Jesus” at the end of a final during his time at AC Milan. One day someone high profile who has just scored a crucial winning goal in a major match is going to reveal that they belong to someone else. It’s coming, but not quite yet.


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