When the World Cup kicks off less than three weeks from now, there will be no openly gay players participating. A recent international poll, however, suggests that majorities of fans in some of the world’s most rabid soccer nations are ready for that to change.
The poll, conducted by British LGBT equality group Stonewall and Swedish online developer Football Addicts and first reported by The Guardian, found that majorities of fans across Europe and North America would support an openly gay player on their national teams. Sweden and Denmark, with 79 percent support, led the way, with British (73 percent), Portuguese (68 percent), and Italian fans (68 percent) not far behind. Somewhat surprisingly, Germany and the United States, two countries where former national team players have come out as gay, turned in the lowest support among nations with a majority at 53 percent and 52 percent, respectively.
The poll included responses from 30,000 fans in 29 countries.
There have been slow strides toward progress in recent years. Swedish player Anton Hysen came out in 2011 and, playing for BK Hacken, made the Allsvenskan the first (and only) European top-division league to host an openly gay player. Former U.S. national team midfielder Robbie Rogers came out in February 2013 and became the first openly gay player in America’s Major League Soccer that June. And former German international player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out this January.
Still, despite the poll’s suggestion of support from fans, issues remain: Rogers retired from English club Leeds United because he said it would have been “impossible to come out” while playing in England, and Hitzlsperger came out only after calling an end to a senior career that took him through top leagues in England, Germany, and Italy. Hitzlsperger’s decision was hailed by fellow players like Arsenal striker (and former Germany teammate) Lukas Podolski, but upon coming out, he said that the need to foster acceptance of LGBT players had been “ignored” throughout European soccer.
Homophobia directed at soccer players popped up as an issue around the Brazil World Cup last month, when a Brazilian company sold t-shirts using gay slurs toward prominent soccer players like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. The shirts showed soccer’s ability to draw attention to broader LGBT problems: while gay marriage is legal in Brazil and LGBT people there enjoy broad protections from discrimination, they also face absurdly high rates of homophobic (and often deadly) violence.
Many of the countries on the poll’s list have made major advances on gay rights since the turn of the century, but international soccer, like other sports, has not kept up. And while some have made strides to catch up — England’s Football Association this year launched a campaign that aims to rid its matches of homophobic abuse and promote atmospheres conducive to LGBT players and fans, and German chancellor Angela Merkel has told players there that they have nothing to fear by coming out — FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, has not. FIFA remained quiet on the anti-gay law Russia passed after FIFA awarded the country the 2018 World Cup. And when asked about the implications of its decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where homosexuality is banned by law, FIFA president Sepp Blatter only laughed off the concern, urging LGBT fans (and, presumably, players) to “refrain from sexual activities.”
That fans in many soccer-rabid nations are ready to embrace gay players, though, should encourage organizations like FIFA and domestic soccer federations to do more to become more open and inclusive to gay players and fans, as Stonewall’s head of policy James Taylor told The Guardian in announcing the results.
“Over the last 10 years we have seen great strides in attitudes towards lesbian, gay and bisexual people,” Taylor said. “Sadly, our national game has not moved as far or as quickly as other parts of society. It’s clear that more needs to be done to tackle homophobia not just in football, but sport more generally.”