Carrow Road, February 9th 1980; Norwich City welcome the Match of the Day cameras as they go head-to-head with Liverpool. Justin Fashanu collects the ball at the edge of the penalty box with his back to goal. He flicks it up with his right foot, simultaneously swivels his body and strikes a sensational shot into the far corner, leaving Ray Clemence helpless between the Liverpool posts.
This moment of brilliance was later voted the 1979/80 goal of the season, and will forever be the goal of all time in the hearts of many Canaries.
Justin Fashanu was a mere 18-years-old when he set Carrow Road alight with that effort, a couple weeks short of his 19th birthday. A year later, Fashanu became the first black player to claim a million-pound price tag, as Brian Clough brought him across the country to Nottingham Forest.
However, Fashanu’s form declined at his new club and Clough was angered due to allegations claiming his signing had attended gay clubs and bars. Once the Nottingham Forest boss was made aware of Fashanu’s homosexuality, he banned the striker from even training with the rest of the side.
Clough later stated a conversation which took place between himself and Fashanu within his autobiography, “’Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to a bloody poofs’ club?’
The abuse Fashanu encountered due to his sexuality was fierce. He became the target of utterly horriblec crowd abuse, he was ridiculed by former colleagues and his own brother, John, publicly disowned him.
The final straw of this devastating discrimination, was when the player who had pledged his services to over five English clubs during his career, was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old in America.
The once adored footballer was hounded by the media and subsequently, Fashanu was found dead inside a garage in East London; with nothing except a rope around his neck and the undeserved torment masking his charismatic and captivating character. He was just 37.
Justin Fashanu’s story described by Nick Baker in ‘Forbidden Forward’ is a hard-hitting, vivid illustration of how society has treated gay sportsmen in the past.
Although thanks to sportsmen and women such as 18-time Grand Slam winner Martina Navratilova, retired Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas and Olympic Bronze medallist Tom Daley; things appear to be progressing as homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted in the world of sport.
Despite this encouraging news we continued to long for the day a gay footballer revealed his sexuality to the public, with John Fashanu the only professional footballer to ever come out until ex-Leeds United midfielder Robbie Rogers came out last year.
However this wait was brought to an end this year as former Everton, West Ham and Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger publicly revealed that he was in fact gay ealier this week.
This breakthrough may prove revolutionary as the modern football world is still without a recognised gay player. Hitzlsperger, who retired in September because of injury, has recently stated that Tom Daley amongst others inspired him to express his sexuality to the media.
He told the Daily Mail: “They weren’t footballers but the fact that they went public gave me the feeling that I was not alone. They all said it was good for them. I began to think that I could help other footballers who might be in the same shoes”.
Whether or not a gay footballer who is presently playing today will come out, is another story. Brighton is well known for having an extensive gay community and is often referred to as the ‘gay capital of Britain’.
Local fans have recently complained that they have been subject to homophobic chants from opposing spectators. In addition to this it has been reported that Brighton’s fans were victims of these insults in at least 57% of their fixtures last campaign. “Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters’ Club has spent over 15 years trying to get the authorities to take this regular abuse of one club’s fans seriously”.
Hitzlsperger however does believe that one day a current professional footballer will openly admit that he or she is gay and aims to help ensure that young, gay footballers won’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to come out in the future.
He explained: “Now they can see that they can become professional footballers, they can play at the highest level and that they can be gay. It’s not a contradiction; as I proved”.
The proof for all is at point-blank range. Thomas Hitzlsperger, Gareth Thomas, Tom Daley and many more; all strong, all brave, all have competed at the highest level of their specific sporting fields. All gay.
The former Premier League star’s announcement has undoubtedly been met with an overwhelming amount of optimism and support, especially from none other than Amal Fashanu, Justin Fashanu’s niece. “I was really happy to be honest with you. I think that it’s a move forward and anything like this is amazing”.
When asked about whether things have changed regarding the issue since her uncle came out, Amal stated, “Things have definitely changed from back then. Justin wasn’t just dealing with the fact he was gay, he was black and gay, which seemed to be the two things which were no-goes, but since then things have changed”.
Roberto Martinez, Hitzlsperger’s final manager during his career in football, has also conveyed his paramount support for the 31-year-old, “As a footballer – and as a human being – you need to be happy and we back Thomas’ decision of being happy as a person and coming out”.
It remains to be seen if a modern day footballer will use Hitzlsperger’s announcement as a springboard for their confidence in their true selves, however when asked what long-term reaction he expects, the German international responded, “I’m not interested. I know that my family and my closest friends; to them it’s not important that I talk about my experiences as a homosexual football player”.
He went on to add, “But it’s probably more important for those people who discriminate others because of their sexuality, and those people now know they have a pronounced opponent”.
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