The manager of one of European soccer’s most prominent clubs said in an interview this week that he would welcome openly gay players, and that the sport needs to continue to make progress to make soccer open to such players.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, the longest-tenured manager in the English Premier League, told his club’s web site that he hoped for the day that a player’s coming out would not be news, but that English and European soccer had progress to make to reach that destination. Arsenal was involved in a European match this year during which fans of German club Bayern Munich unfurled a homophobic banner. That was a “very sad” moment for the sport that has at times lagged behind others in its efforts to promote an atmosphere welcoming of gay players, Wenger told Arsenal.com.
“I think football is there to provoke moments of happiness, excitement and positive experiences in people, no matter where they come from, what color skin they have, what religion they are or what their preferred sexuality is,” Wenger told the web site. “It’s very sad that some people think that this sport should only be reserved for those who have certain characteristics. It’s open to everybody who loves football and when that doesn’t happen, it’s not acceptable.”
Justin Fashanu became the first English player to come out during his career in 1990. Fashanu was largely ostracized by players, coaches, fans, and even his own brother, who played for the English national team, and seven years later, he committed suicide.
Two soccer players who have played in England came out in the last year and a half, but both retired from English soccer before doing so. American Robbie Rogers came out while playing for English club Leeds United but retired because he said it would have been “impossible” to be a gay player in England. Rogers later became the first openly gay player in America’s Major League Soccer. German international Thomas Hitzlsperger, whose career spanned top leagues in England, Germany, and Italy, came out in January, after he had retired. At the time, Hitzlsperger said that LGBT issues had been “ignored” in European soccer.
Wenger, who said it was “completely unrealistic” to think there are no gay players in the English Premier League, said that the players’ discomfort with coming out during their careers in England meant the sport had “progress to make” in welcoming openly gay players.
“I found it brave and I think that normally you should not have had to speak about that,” Wenger said of Hitzlsperger’s coming out. “It would be good if four, five, six people come out and after that nobody speaks about it anymore because they just think it is people who live their life like they want to live it. He could not come out during his career, which means we still have some progress to make in our game because he should not have had to wait until the end. But overall he should not have to come out at all because it should just be considered like anything else.”
When University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out ahead of the NFL Draft (he was eventually taken by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round), anonymous NFL executives speculated that his sexuality would cause his draft stock to drop. Wenger said that coaches shouldn’t consider a player’s sexuality when evaluating his worth to a team.
“It’s wrong to consider that — you would say that your value drops only if your performances drop,” he said. “I believe that in the game you have to consider what’s important, and that is what happens on the football pitch and how well people behave on their private life and the value of a player is considered just through his attitude and his performances.”
A poll released this week found that fans across Europe and North America would support openly gay players.
You can read Wenger’s full interview with Arsenal.com here.