Last Wednesday, the manager of US soccer team San Diego Loyal SC, the former Everton and USA player Landon Donovan, instructed his players to leave the pitch during their match against Phoenix Rising.

The abandonment came as the San Diego captain Collin Martin, one of the only openly gay male footballers in the world, was allegedly subjected to a homophobic slur. 

Martin, who has been playing professional football in the USA for eight years, says he has never previously been targeted for his sexuality and that he felt “shameful” walking off of the pitch. Martin acknowledges the homophobic talk around the game in general, though until now it had never been personally directed at him.

Martin says he “felt bad for the team” as forfeiting the match meant a lost opportunity at play-off glory for San Diego Loyal SC,  nonetheless he was confident that his club “would have his back.”

In the 55th minute, the San Diego players suddenly departed the pitch, initially causing confusion among officials and commentators. 

Landon Donovan explained “Collin came over and told the fourth official that he had been abused by a homophobic slur. When I heard that- I lost it.”

Donovan representing the US in 2009 (credit: FIFA)

In footage following the alleged incident, the head coach of Phoenix Rising, Rick Schantz, can be heard telling Landon Donovan that “it’s a part of soccer” in reference to the slur and supposed expectation of unpleasant exchanges expected on field and in the turnstiles. 

Donovan expressed his desire initially to resume the game, telling Schantz “I want to be clear on this, if you don’t pull the player off the field, our players are not going to play. We have to make a stand.” Schantz refused. 

San Diego defender Tarek Morad can be heard addressing the Phoenix coach, stating “your player called my gay teammate a ‘batty boy’. You’re not dumb, you know what that means.” 

In a follow up statement on his Twitter, Tarek acknowledged his pride in representing a team with sound ethical values: “Oftentimes in life, the right decisions and hardest decisions are one in the same. Tonight, our team walked off the pitch together in solidarity. Proud to be part of this club.”

Ironically, San Diego Loyal SC and Phoenix Rising had agreed to pause their match in the 71st minute to hold up a banner denouncing racism in football, as a response to San Diego player Elijah Martin’s recent experience of racism in the outfit’s previous match. This act of solidarity was obviously not realised due to another form of bigotry.  

Donovan is one of The United States’ finest footballing exports, representing LA Galaxy for nine years, accompanied by loan spells in Europe at Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Everton.

It was Donovan’s resolute pride in Martin’s right to play without having to experience harassment to abuse that inspired the walk-off, with the player admitting that he tried to play the situation down and resume the match for the sake of the team, with the manager refusing to do so unless appropriate action was taken. 

Donovan released a video statement on the club’s Twitter page, saying “We made a vow to ourselves, to our community, to our players, to the club that we would not stand for bigotry [or] homophobic slurs, things that don’t belong in our game.

“In the heart and passion of the moment, the players wanted to carry on playing the game- We were kicking Phoenix’s ass, that’s a great feeling. 

“But if we want to be true to whom we are as a club, we decided if the player who used the homophobic slur wasn’t removed officially or by their coach, and then we’d have to act ourselves.

“I’d asked the referee to do something about it – he said he couldn’t. The referee had said he’d heard the word being said but that he didn’t know what it means.”

Donovan expressed his “tremendous pride” in his players whom were an “immense credit” to the club.

Message of support. (Credit, San Diego Loyal SC)

Earlier this year, English football asked itself similar questions in regards to tackling homophobia, with a report by The Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport noting that ‘Football has long had a problem with homophobia’. The report details how support for the LGBT community in football, such as the rainbow laces campaign, is routinely met with social media abuse. 

Speaking in 2019 at the Amex Stadium, home to Brighton and Hove Albion, legendary Liverpool hard man Graeme Souness echoed football’s longstanding issues regarding homophobia, explaining how it took him many years to accept and respect the differences that exist in the footballing spectrum. 

“Why has nobody ever come out? I don’t think football has created an environment where anybody would feel comfortable or confident if they did.

“What a hero they would be if they did [come out].

“I came from a generation in football that was extremely homophobic, with dressing room banter focussing on it.

“There must be gay and bisexual players playing in the Premier League, there has to be.

“I came here [to Brighton] for Pride. I found it extremely educational and I would tell anyone that if you want to learn more, come down here for the Pride parade. You’ll go away with a completely different opinion.

“We have to create the environment where they feel comfortable” 

The Premier League’s chief executive Richard Masters believes that the conditions for a footballer to come out in the modern game are in place, saying they would be “embraced by the game.” However, if that’s the case, it certainly isn’t reflected on the ground, with no current gay footballer in the top tiers of English football and constant tabloid hysteria surrounding rumours of injunctions taken out by those wishing to protect their privacy. 

The report notes ‘It is essential that steps are taken to understand what barriers stand in the way of gay footballers, and how much of the responsibility lies with clubs and how much with fans’.

The report concludes by laying out plans to amend the Football Offences Act 1999, by making homophobic abuse and chanting at football games a criminal offence. 

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