There are just a handful of top level men’s football players in the world that have come out and have felt able to be open about their sexuality. Few have done so while still playing.
But it’s not just football stars who worry about acceptance within their world — it’s fans, too.
If Wales qualify for the 2022 World Cup, it will be a dream come true for James Brinning.
As a longstanding fan of the national team, Brinning would like nothing more than to see Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and company make it to international football’s biggest tournament.
But if The Dragons do find themselves on the world stage next year, for the first time in more than sixty years, then Brinning faces the possibility of not being able to travel to watch any of the team’s matches in person — not because of any coronavirus restrictions but because he is gay and this World Cup is due to be held in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison.
“To be able to watch Wales play at the World Cup would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Brinning told CNN Sport. “But, honestly, I just don’t know if I’d be able to go because I wouldn’t feel safe. And that’s really upsetting to think about — because I should be able to be a part of such a huge moment in Welsh football history if it happens.”
In July, Qatar World Cup organizers told CNN that it will not stop anybody from entering the country based on “sexual orientation,” or indeed any other aspect, including their “race, religion, creed.”
“This World Cup is open for everybody.”
However the decision made by FIFA to host the tournament in a nation where LGBTQ+ fans potentially do not feel welcome is just one aspect of a wider problem facing football right now, in which LGBTQ+ supporters feel that homophobia is on the rise within the sport and the ruling bodies of the game aren’t doing enough to address it.
In a statement to CNN, a FIFA spokesperson said: “As laid out in the FIFA World Cup Sustainability Strategy, Qatar as a host country is fully aware of its responsibility to adhere to FIFA’s expectations and requirements on human rights, equality and non-discrimination.”
“Qatar is committed to ensuring that everyone will be able to enjoy the tournament in a safe and welcoming environment, to building bridges of cultural understanding and to creating an inclusive experience for all participants, attendees and local communities, including from the LGBTIQ+ community,” the spokesperson added.
“FIFA is confident that all necessary measures will be in place for LGBTIQ+ fans and allies to enjoy the tournament in a welcoming and safe environment, just as everyone else.”
Brinning’s concerns are not just limited to football’s most prestigious occasion.
LGBTQ+ fans, he says, find themselves often having to research what the attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people are in particular nations when events such as the Euros, the Europa League and the Champions League are held before they travel overseas to support their teams — just to know if they’ll be safe to step foot in stadiums.
In the UK, Brinning also points to the deeply disheartening experience of hearing homophobic chants sung by fellow fans of the same club.
“I remember watching Spurs [Tottenham Hotspur] play Chelsea in the FA Cup and I was so excited,” recalled Brinning. “And then, that familiar ‘Rent Boy’ chant came about and I was so disappointed, not just because I had to listen to homophobic language — but because it was coming from other Spurs fans.
“It just takes away from the camaraderie that you’re supposed to share with your fellow fans.”
The chant Brinning refers to is a derogatory song that’s deemed deeply offensive to the LGBTQ+ community and which has been used for years to mock Chelsea.
In a statement on the subject of discriminatory abuse at the start of the new season, Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters said: “I think we’ve made it very clear that tackling discrimination is a priority for the Premier League, and so have all of our clubs.
“We’ve introduced a league-wide ban, so if you are caught then you’ll be banned from not just your own club but all other Premier League clubs as well […] and with fans coming back, we’re working with stewards to help them to deal with some of these issues should they arise.”
Masters also said that the Premier League are “working with fan groups, with fans, to help fund some fan education so people can fully understand the impact of discriminatory abuse.”
Under the Football Offenses Act — first introduced in the UK in 1991 — there is no mention of homophobic chanting or the use of homophobic language in stadiums as offenses. Even under the section of the Act that deems it an offense to engage in chanting of an ‘incident’ nature, there is no specific reference to homophobic language or homophobia as ‘indecent’ behavior.