A couple of years ago I wrote a short story — very short, only about 1500 words — set in the dusty office of the manager of a football club. A young, talented member of his team came to him with a confession: he was gay. More than that, he wanted to come out publicly. The story played out as an exchange between the two, with a not particularly twisty twist at the end.
It was inspired by the then-recent decision of FIFA, football’s world governing body, to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. For an organisation allegedly committed to stamping out discrimination in the game, the decision was and remains incomprehensible: homosexuality is barely tolerated in much of Russia, and is illegal in Qatar. It’s as if FIFA had awarded the World Cup of 1978 to South Africa, at the height of apartheid.
The player in my short story looked ahead to 2022, when he might be out, happily married, with kids — and playing for England. Would the FA not allow him to be selected, to avoid offending the hosts? Would Qatar turn him away at the airport, along with any other players that might be out by then? Of course not.
The authorities in Qatar could surely do nothing but let him and the others play, or risk the condemnation of the international community. They would have to let in his partner, if he had one. Any other action would be intolerable, and worthy of a boycott.
I’m sure that by 2022 this won’t be a hypothetical scenario. I’m convinced that there’ll be out gay male players in the top football leagues around the world, and it’s more likely than not that at least one of the 32 national teams in Qatar will field an out gay player.
But currently there are none at the highest levels of the game, nationally or internationally: the only out gay man currently playing is Anton Hysén, in the third division of the Swedish league. In Britain, the only out gay player so far has been Justin Fashanu, twenty years ago, in a different world.
I don’t believe this will remain the case for long. I think that within a year — possibly this summer, between seasons — someone playing in the English or Scottish Premier League will come out. I don’t know who, I don’t know where — I have no inside information — it just feels as if it will happen. A momentum seems to be building, almost as if a growing number of people are being let into a secret and then voicing their support without naming names. Eventually there’ll be a critical mass, a tipping point, and the unnamed player or players will come out. Perhaps: I don’t know.
But this gut feeling is why I’m in a hurry to publish my next book.
Called Disunited, it’s set at a football club I don’t name, in a city I don’t name, in the present day. It’s about a newly signed rising star of the game called Danny Prince who becomes — reluctantly — the first British player to come out since Fashanu. It’s my usual mix of humour and seriousness, and — in case you might be put off — it’s not a football book, full of arcane gags about the offside rule. The first top footballer who comes out in the UK today will face many struggles on and off the pitch — dealing with his teammates, his manager, and not least his supporters — but the story’s about universal human worries: loyalty, honesty, risks, relationships, and remaining true to yourself.
Or maybe a real-life player will beat me to it…