A badly judged joke from two former Spanish international players is a reminder of the work that football still has to do over LGBTQ matters.
No-one really wants to be here again, do they? It seems unlikely that Iker Casillas or Carles Puyol will have welcomed the attention brought by their attempt at a ‘joke’ on social media, and the LGBTQ community won’t be happy at such high-profile individuals laughing at their very existence.
And with the excuses given for what happened stretching credulity to breaking point, two much-celebrated former players are left with their reputations damaged while football’s ongoing steps towards trying to be more inclusive feel both seriously and unnecessarily undermined.
The story begins with a now-deleted tweet in which the former Real Madrid goalkeeper Casillas said ‘I hope I’ll be respected: I’m gay’. The tweet came following speculation in the Spanish media about him being in a relationship with an actress, the sort of tabloid tittle-tattle that is now a near-inevitable part of the life of the high-profile player. This was followed by a reply from the former Barcelona and Spain international Carles Puyol which implied that the pair were in a relationship.
In the first place, there was a flood of support for Casillas on social media. But the ramifications were also clear in the replies to his ‘joke’. For every message of support, there were others expressing anger or disgust at what he’d said. The homophobes had been awakened, and were pretty determined to make their point. And the subsequent retraction and desultory apology don’t seem to have silenced them.
Casillas has since claimed that his Twitter account was hacked, but while it’s unlikely that this will be definitively proved either way, it wasn’t an entirely convincing explanation. For one thing, it doesn’t really explain Puyol’s response – he subsequently described it as ‘a clumsy joke with no bad intentions’.
And for another, it didn’t explain the somewhat perfunctory nature of Casillas’ actual apology, which said, ‘Hacked account. Luckily everything in order. Apologies to all my followers. And of course, more apologies to the LGBT community.’ Well, that’s that definitively dealt with, then.
It is completely unsurprising that all of this should have been met with considerable criticism. Josh Cavallo, the Adelaide United player who came out almost exactly a year ago, was withering in his assessment of the ‘joke’:
‘Casillas and Puyol joking and making fun out of coming out in football is disappointing. It’s a difficult journey that any LGBTQ+ ppl have to go through. To see my role models and legends of the game make fun out of coming out and my community is beyond disrespectful.’
It had felt as though progress was starting to be made on this subject. Cavallo’s tweet was shared by Jake Daniels, the Blackpool player who came out last summer, and it’s worth remembering that the decision of Cavallo and Daniels (as well as Zander Murray, the Gala Fairydean player who became the first out Scottish player, just a couple of weeks ago) to come out has represented a significant shift in attitudes.
Because for all that society’s attitudes have moved over the last few decades in a broader sense, professional football appears to remain an outpost in which players remain unwilling to come out. There will, of course, be players who wish to keep their private lives, well, private, and they have an absolute right to do so.
But there will also be players who would like to be completely open about exactly who they are without a torrent of the opinions of others. It seems unlikely that the latter of these two categories of player will feel particularly emboldened now, having seen what has happened as a result of Casillas’ message.
The levels of support shown to Cavallo, Daniels and Murray have indicated that the public remains ahead of the game itself on this subject. But what would a young, closeted gay player have made of all those vomiting emojis in the replies to Casillas’ ‘joke’? Probably that it’s really not worth all the hassle.
The end result is the same; another voice silenced, another person made to feel shamed by a central part of their identity. And it feels entirely plausible that this is part of the point of these ostentatiously disgusted replies, as a reminder that ‘you are not welcome here’. After all, the option is always there to not say anything at all.
This is all the more dispiriting, because ‘the game’ itself has at least given the impression of trying to make itself more inclusive in recent years. Gay pride flags have flown from corner flags and the roofs of stands, while the rainbow laces campaigns have been ongoing. The growth of women’s football over the last decade has come with a substantial number of LGBTQ players, and the issue is completely normalised.
But the thoughtless words of former players with large reaches do serve as a reminder of how much work there remains to be done, and how difficult it can be for even clubs or governing bodies to keep messaging consistent. As former players, no federation or club holds any sway over what they decide to be funny, and there will be no punishment from within the game beyond censure.
The whole point of encouraging gay players to come out is the hope that it becomes in time sufficiently normalised to not be an issue anymore. Unless we accept the frankly specious idea that men’s football is an island of almost complete heterosexuality in a world that simply isn’t like that, then we can be reasonably certain that there are LGBTQ players who haven’t come out.
It should be incumbent on the whole game to make it as easy for gay players as possible to come out. But all the well-meaning campaigns in the world may end up counting for little, if ex-players continue to believe that coming out is a laughing matter.
For the LGBTQ community, it most assuredly isn’t, and the witless behaviour of Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol hasn’t helped to improve this perception in the slightest.