Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Homophobia in football: The last acceptable bigotry in sport?

The chants usually start within the first few minutes. In fact, if you are a Brighton fan regularly watching games, you can near enough set your watch by them.

Ranging from predictably ignorant “Does your boyfriend know you’re here,” through the ‘classic’ “We can see you holding hands,” all the way to the more offensive “Stand up ‘cos you can’t sit down,” or “We can see you sucking cock,” Albion fans have heard them all. And, more often than not, we have heard them all squashed into the 90 minutes it takes to complete a game of football.

The same chorus lines are repeated across the length and breadth of the football league. Rest assured, if Albion are there, so are the homophobic taunts.

Seagulls fans have developed their own unique way of brushing off the insults.

Nowadays the chants of “You’re too ugly to be gay,” or “We’re gay, and we’re beating you,” are the common response to the near Neanderthalic sing-song from rival fans.

Mostly, the limp-wristed waving and general homophobia directed at Brighton fans are met with little more than a witty retort and a disapproving shake of the head.

But this week there seems to have been a sea-change in the way some Seagulls are tackling the abuse.

A host of Brighton fans decided to report fans of West Ham United direct to the FA after the usual array of songs were sent flying at the Albion faithful during the two teams’ recent televised face-off.

And one prominent Albionite believes it is high time the authorities starting doing more to stamp out what many consider the last bastion of widespread bigotism still tolerated on the terraces.

John Hewitt, chairman of the Albion supports club told the BBC, “We get it everywhere we go.

“The ground regulations say you cannot use homophobic behaviour. There’s a certain amount of banter between fans, but when it crosses that line and becomes offensive it’s not acceptable.

“The FA is not doing enough.”

As someone who has travelled home and away with the Albion, I couldn’t agree more. The level of abuse can flit from the almost laughable attempts to get a rise (“Does your daddy know you’re queer?”) to the far more sinister. I can remember one game at Millwall when, travelling on the train out of South Bermondsey, a group of young Brighton fans were politely informed that a nearby group of South Londoners hoped “they all died of Aids”.

Sadly though, however regular the abuse, I have seen more people thrown out of football grounds under suspicion of being a paedophile (a man taking photos of the stadium at Wolves, completely innocently) than I have for homophobia.

And it isn’t just limited to Brighton. Probably the highest profile case of the law actually being used against football fans was the arrest of a number of Tottenham Hotspurs fans who targeted former player Sol Campbell with the disgusting song, “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be; You’re on the verge of lunacy; We don’t care if you’re hanging from a tree; Cos you’re Judas c*** with HIV,” during a match with Portsmouth back in 2008.

Campbell left White Hart Lane under a cloud – joining the club’s bitter rivals Arsenal in a move which led to rumours about his private life and sexuality, starting by angry Spurs fans.

And for anyone who thinks that in the modern game this sort of stick is water off a duck’s back, this is what Campbell had to say during the subsequent trial.

“I felt totally victimised and helpless by the abuse I received on this day. It has had an effect on me personally and I do not want it to continue.”

And he is by no means the only football dogged by accusations (as if, in 2011, being gay is something someone should feel bad about anyway) of homosexuality.

Former Chelsea and England left-back Graham Le Saux was on the receiving end more than most.

If anyone doubts the effect such consistent abuse can have on an individual, Le Saux’s comments should have particular resonance. “The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football,” he said. “I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going. I would get up in the morning and I would feel good but by time I got into training I would be so nervous I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors.”

The issue has once again been in the news this week – prompting heated discussions on football websites about the offensive nature of the oft-heard chanting.

Surprisingly though, a number of Brighton fans commenting on the decision by their fellow Seagulls to report every incident of homophobia have dismissed the more tame offerings as ‘banter’ and something people should, essentially, not get their knickers in a twist over.

One leading Albion website even urged people to think carefully before reporting homophobia directly to the FA because it would lead to club officials having to invest more hours of manpower into its investigations.

True, the same site did suggest it would be more useful to report incidents to the club itself, but many believe it is time to take a stance against this sort of behaviour and that only by letting the FA know the true scale of the problem, will the governing body act appropriately.

A survey by anti-homophobia campaigners quizzed more than 2,000 football fans across Britain.

More than one-in-four said they felt football was anti-gay - with only one-in-three thinking things had improved in the last 20 years.

Two-thirds of fans felt that football would be a better sport if anti-gay abuse and discrimination was eradicated but just one-in-six said they felt their club was going enough to get rid of the problem.

And those behind the study said football clubs would benefit from less homophobia with increased attendances – saying fans would be more likely to attend matches and snap up merchandise if homophobic abuse was less common. Two-in-five lesbian, gay and bisexual fans said they would be more likely to buy match tickets if football was more gay-friendly.

But, if football is to shed its homophobic element (and it seems it is needs to, 70 per cent of fans have heard anti-gay chanting in the last five seasons) then how best to do it?

Obviously fans can do their part by not joining in, not tolerating those who do, and by reporting incidents to the nearest steward or club official, but the argument goes – certainly in Brighton – that short of ejecting an entire away end the clubs’ hands are very much tied.

Perhaps then the changes need to come from within. Brian Clough – the much-loved former Nottingham Forest (and Brighton) boss – is cheered for his approach to football. Indeed, the legend surrounding Ol’ Big Ead continues to this day, fuelled by a host of endearing stories.

One perhaps not so positive is the conversation he had with Britain’s only high profile gay football to date, Justin Fashanu.

The story goes that Clough cornered the centre-forward and asked him, “Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread? – a baker’s. If you want a leg of lamb? – a butcher’s. So why you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”

Attitudes have no doubt moved on since then, and thankfully so. But they still exist in some dressing rooms.

Former Brazil and Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari was quoted in 2002 as saying, “If I found out that one of my players was gay I would throw him off the team,” and the fact remains that not a single professional football in England is openly out - despite statistics estimating there should be dozens.

The Stonewall research said there was still a culture of fear among footballers, with those who are gay reluctant to admit their sexuality to anyone but their closest friends.

And the charity complained that although homophobic chanting has been outlawed by the FA since 2007, little was being done to actually stop those who persist.

Raj Chandarana, from the Football Supporters’ Federation, said it was up to the entire football community to tackle the problem. He said this week, “It’s about education - making people aware that homophobic chants are unacceptable.

“It can’t always be the FA that needs to have these sanctions. We all need to have the responsibility.”

Heading back to the Brighton messageboards for an update on the debate and many of the comments make for depressing reading – it is difficult to imagine anyone dismissing racist chanting so readily as just ‘banter’ and ‘a bit of fun’.

Perhaps the most depressing strand of this entire issue is that it seems many of the supporters so regularly made the target of homophobic abuse seem to be of the same mindset as those dishing it out.

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