If ever a week has been illustrative of the dilemmas facing football and its attempts to find “shared values” in a globalized game, then it is this one.
On Monday, 17-year-old Blackpool player Jake Daniels became the first professional male player in the UK to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990. His bravery to do so at the fledgling stage of his career was rightly praised by fans, managers and players in English football and marks a step forward in the fight for men’s football to become a more welcoming place for the LGBT+ community.
By Wednesday, how and why clubs and players should show support for the LGBT+ community had become a hotbed of opinion after Paris Saint-Germain’s Idrissa Gueye reportedly withdrew from his team’s match against Montpellier at the weekend after players were asked to wear shirts with rainbow numbers .
The rainbow has long been associated with the LGBT+ community and Gueye, a practicing Muslim, withdrew from the match for “personal reasons” according to manager Mauricio Pochettino after doing the same last season with illness for the game marking International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17.
Gueye, formerly of Everton and Aston Villa, has since received support from national team mates Cheikhou Kouyate of Crystal Palace, Leicester City’s Papy Mendy and Watford’s Ismaila Sarr on social media as well as the backing of the country’s president Macky Sall. A hashtag, #WeAreAllIdrissa, has been trending on Twitter in support of the 32-year-old with views ranging from the openly homophobic to cases made for freedom of speech in his defense.
LGBT+ football fans have been thrown from a moment of celebration in support of Daniels to doom-scrolling social media profiles debating their right to love freely and expect a safe space within the sport.
This has, naturally, now become a culture war and is one that will continue to rear its ugly head as football tries to maintain its expansive reach as the world’s favorite sport while determining the shared values of all who play it.
In the past few days it has become clear why the Premier League has not at any point opted to introduce rainbow numbers to the back of players shirts as part of the Rainbow Laces campaign or any other associated LGBT+ event, avoiding the problem altogether. Instead, players – usually a select few similar faces – will engage with LGBT+ fans during Rainbow Laces or wear the laces themselves in support.
The question with no right answer is whether players should be forced to take part in such events, although there are obvious hypocrisies to personal choice in such cases. If, for example, a player opts out of showing support to the LGBT+ community on their shirt in a one-off event on religious grounds but has been promoting a gambling sponsor on the sleeve of the same shirt all season, also challenging their beliefs, should clubs not call them out?
Probably the most disappointing response to all of this is that too few clubs and managers have done exactly that. Only Leicester City’s statement contained any real substance, stating that “the club has spoken with Papy and discussed the potential interpretation of the post, which has since been removed. It was not his intention to cause offense or to suggest he shares views that conflict with the Club’s long-established commitment to equality and inclusion.
“Leicester City Football Club stands firmly as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and is proud of the work it has undertaken in recent years, aimed at helping to create a safe and inclusive environment and educating our people on the importance of allyship.”
PSG’s statement failed to mention Gueye by name at all while Watford’s best effort was to say they would, “offer further education and support to any of its employees” and Palace manager Patrick Vieira said he would have an “in-house conversation” with any player who posted in support of Gueye.
All of the clubs with players involved have done campaigns or statements in support of the LGBT+ community but when it matters, have largely fallen short in stepping up to establish where they draw the line for players who appear to share Gueye’s views. Cynical voices would say that clubs are never likely to take a truly hard-line stance on issues like this, the Black Lives Matter movement or any other social justice campaign, because players are assets that they cannot afford to lose or damage.
But there is more moral hand-wringing to be done on whether players being forced to do things against their will is right either. Player contracts will tie them to representing the club, including its sponsors, in kit over the course of the season and it is common for clauses to dictate that to do otherwise would bring the club’s reputation into disrepute, leading to sanctions. As with any contract dispute, however, there are ways for players to get out of one-off instances like in Gueye’s case.
Giving players the choice to be involved, for example by allowing Gueye to wear a blank number rather than a rainbow digit, feels like a simple option but given that it would effectively mean a player actively demonstrating that they are anti-LGBT, is perhaps a step few would really take.
It is a small ask for clubs and players to want to show support for causes that matter and then own up when they have done wrong, yet it happens all too infrequently.
The fact that a teenager and his club have shown how best to handle complex matters like this – with clarity, honesty and compassion – shows there is a way to navigate tricky waters. Blackpool consulted LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, among other organizations, to work with Daniels to ensure he had the right support to come out when he was ready.
Club vice-captain Marvin Ekpiteta has since apologized for historic homophobic posts on Twitter a decade ago, to which Daniels replied, “What you said ten years ago at 17 years old doesn’t define the man you are today. I am proud to be your team-mate and to be part of the Blackpool family-we are all moving football forwards together. ”
It was the most mature exchange of the week in this swirling mess of a debate, from a 17-year-old who represents the future of football in this country.
The big question for football is how it will ensure players like Daniels feel they belong in the sport while finding a clearer response to future issues involving players and social justice campaigns. If supporting the LGBT+ community really matters to clubs, then they need to speak up when it is hard, not just when it suits them.
(Photo: Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)