Rob Harkavy reckons that LGBT fans and England’s footballers have more in common than it might appear
The World Cup, the quadrennial, international celebration of The Beautiful Game is upon us, organised jointly by that global bastion of freedom and democracy, Russia, and cuddly, transparent FIFA. Seriously, Blatter (now retired) and Putin… what’s not to like? Answers on a (very big) postcard please.
Despite Russia’s reputation for LGBT hostility, brave LGBT fans have ploughed their savings into a Russian adventure, and will doubtless be heeding the advice of the Foreign Office and various fan groups to remain vigilant. You know the sort of thing: stay in well lit areas, no open displays of affection, no feather boas in England colours – so far, so predictable. And while it would be invidious to compare attitudes to gay fabulousness in Russia with those in the UK, there aren’t many of us from this sceptred isle who haven’t learned the hard way that discretion is the better part of valour if you have an aversion to getting your head kicked in.
Let us set aside for a moment that the Englishmen at the World Cup are already millionaires, and enjoy a pampered, privileged lifestyle which most of us can only dream of. To reach the top in football, make no mistake, requires sacrifice, hard work and commitment, as well as the prerequisite talent. Most of these young men come from poor or underprivileged backgrounds and, frankly, if anyone offered me that sort of money for doing something I love, I’d take it. It’s not their fault that the football world is awash with zillions of pounds, euros and roubles.
If you’re LGBT, you’ll know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of prejudice. Not necessarily overt, discriminatory homophobia, but the sort of sneering, micro-aggressive superiority that’s hard to pin down, but which is definitely out there and which, for the most part, comes from certain sectors of the British mainstream press.
Look at the recent case of Raheem Sterling, an immensely talented footballer who, according to mainstream football journalists, is a dedicated, humble, hard-working young man. Sterling has recently had a gun tattooed on his leg. It is, reportedly, a work in progress which, when finished, will commemorate Sterling’s father who was shot dead when Sterling was a toddler.
Cue outrage from the press (to be fair to all the excellent sports hacks out there, we’re talking news rather than sports pages). I will not repeat the sneers and smears here, but you only have to scratch the surface to see the creeping racism surrounding reports of a young black man with the image of a gun on his body and how it might encourage gun-based gang violence. Let us not forget that dagger designs, often dripping in blood, are a staple of British tattoo art, yet no sensible journalist has suggested that all the white people with this design contribute to the current spate of knife violence in the UK.
Next, look at the examples of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, both immensely successful for both club and country. Beckham, from Leytonstone in London, and Rooney, from Croxteth in Liverpool, sound working class and are working class. As anyone sensible knows, speaking in a working class Scouse or east London accent does not make you stupid – it’s purely a reflection of your roots. Yet throughout their careers, both Beckham and Rooney were mercilessly pilloried for being ‘thick’.
I used to play a bit of football, and to be anything like as good as Rooney or Beckham requires spatial awareness, extraordinary skill and – yes – intelligence. Compare this with rowing, a sport which also requires dedication, power and some skill, but which is chiefly viewed as a white, middle-class pastime. For all we know, many of Team GB’s successful rowing team could be as thick as mince, but because they have nice middle-class accents, the press wouldn’t dream of casting aspersions on their intelligence.
So if you’re English, or a particularly generous-spirited Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland fan (I’m not holding my breath), these rich-as-Croesus footballers have more in common with you than you might think. They too have faced unfounded prejudices and a hostile press, so let’s get behind the team and remember that, even in the most unlikely circumstances, there is more that unites than divides us.