Bill Shankly, a Scottish coach, once said : “Some people believe soccer is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
By the time this column goes to print there will be approximately three weeks left before the 2010 FIFA WORLD CUP kicks off on June 11.The single biggest sporting event on earth. More than 715 million people watched the final game in 2006. That’s almost ten times the number that watched the Super Bowl that same year.
Two hundred and four nations tried to qualify for one of the thirty two spots in the final round. Consider this: there are 192 countries in the United Nations. Only the US stubbornly refuses to embrace the Beautiful Game.
When World Cup Soccer starts, world-wide productivity stalls. From Lisbon to Tokyo workers begin calling in sick. The epidemic is often referred to as the World Cup Flu.
Imagine the Super Bowl and the World Series played on a weekday afternoon, every day for a month. The WC goes beyond sports. During these thirty days, it’s an all- consuming affair for the fans.
It takes the form of a ‘lingua franca’ or a global religion. I’m one of those worshipping loonies.
I remember when The Azzurri (Italy’s nickname because of their legendary sky blue shirts) lost the 1970 final to Brazil in Mexico City, I was crushed, ashamed; a shattered teenager on the verge of tears. The feeling was total devastation. My friends, me, we were all silent, saddened. It was tru- ly as if someone had died- a personal and national tragedy.
For the first time in its history, this year the WC will be held on the African Continent. South Africa is the host country. New roads, stadiums, infrastructures, hotels, airports have been built, to the tune of $ 4.6 billion, in preparation for the biggest welcoming party on the planet.
“The Rainbow Nation”, as Archbishop Tutu calls it, is ready for the big event.
South Africa is the first country hosting a World Cup where gay marriage is legal and sanctioned by its young constitution. That’s small consolation, however, on a continent where homosexuals are persecuted, jailed and often executed. In Africa, homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 countries out of 54, from Egypt to Uganda to Nigeria to Malawi.
Africa’s gays are caught in the ideological battle waged in the U.S.by conservative Christian preachers who, through their extensive African communications net- works, warn of the dangers posed by homosexuals and present themselves as the true stewards of US Evangelicalism. They feel most of the western world has dis- carded their anti-gay rhetoric and are therefore seeking fertile new soil to spread their crusades of hate.
As much as I love the game I also know that, like all other major team sports, it has its own homophobic undercurrents. FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, is dragging its heels in tackling homophobia. As in American sports, there is a very poor record of tolerating openly gay players. Several true stories of gay male athletes have been collected in the book “Jocks” by Dan Woog. Otherwise, there is a complete lack of willingness to tell the gay athletes’ side. Also, sports has their own unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There is also a lack of courage on the parts of the athletes themselves to come out of the closet. Teams are alpha-male dominated and players do not want to show any signs of what is perceived as a “weakness”.
Justin Fashanu, who killed himself in 1998, is the only prominent professional soccer player to have come out and endure viral homo- phobic abuse from the opposing terraces.
Slowly but surely things are changing. Two years ago The Justin Fashanu Campaign was founded in his hometown, Norwich City- England, to fight homophobia in soccer. They have been joined by ‘Kick It Out’ and The Gay Football Supporters Network in petitioning FIFA, to institute, among other things, sanctions for clubs that fail to tackle homophobia in their stands or their board- rooms. While attitudes have changed and gays have been accepted in just about every facet of European life the fact that no other professional player has come out shows there is still a lot of work to be done.
Sadly soccer is still in the dark ages and homophobia remains an ugly stain on the Beautiful Game.
Sports have a big impact on the mindset of others.The majority of fans at matches will continue to hear - and some engage in -anti-gay abuse. Now, at last, groups like ‘Kick it Out’ are starting to mobilize and they are becoming a vocal movement. Whereas in the past homophobia was also in the closet, now it is being spoken about. It is small comfort for sure but it is a step in the right direction.
In the meantime the show must go on. Come June 11, I’m taking off from work, I’m taking off from activism, I will not answer the phone or tweet, and my social and personal life will be put on hold until the winner lifts the cup on July 11. Italy, my Azzurri, are the reigning world champions. It will be extremely difficult to retain the title and win a fifth one but let me dream for a few more weeks or until they are eliminated.
If and when that happens don’t talk to me, don’t call me, don’t come looking for me- unless you have an extra large supply of Xanax in your gay bag and a Blue Ray copy of “Bend it Like Beckham.”