“There's no fucking hot water!” a slightly portly man with a meat and potato pie announced in front of me, spraying the mouthful he had just taken over the crowd of unfortunate people who had been waiting hopefully for a warm drink. They, like the gentlemen atop the queue, would be sorely disappointed. For the record, the urn had broken at that particular kiosk, meaning the people that should have been collecting tea, coffee or Bovril would have to go without. Or go to a different kiosk.
Being a thirteen year old boy with spots, an irrational love for Manchester City, and a hatred of drinks served hot, at the time I suppose I found that incident mildly amusing more than anything else. Looking back, though, the reaction kind of sums up my biggest problem with football: I don't really fit in. Not that I particularly want to be 'just another face in the crowd', mind you.
It's a maxim that's been explored on QI recently and one that, in my experience, tends to err on the side of being true: The higher the number of people gathered, the less likely any of them will take decisive action in a situation where it is needed. It's something to do with a fear of looking like a prat in front of everyone else, I think. For example, if one person witnesses a mugging, there’s a high chance they’ll act. If thirty people witness the same incident, it’s more likely they’ll all just stand and watch. Seems odd, but apparently true.
Now, there are not many gay men in the stands of football stadiums. There are some; it'd be odd if there weren't, but I'm willing to bet the proportion of a match-going crowd that is attracted to their own gender shows a disparity to that of everyday society. I'm one of the few.
In my experience, it's a bit of an odd life being a passionate football fan – part of my job actually involves talking about it on radio and writing about it online and in print – while also being homosexual. I tend to find there's something of an inherent fear of it in the stands, bizarrely from people who probably hold few ill feelings towards it away from the sport. It's as if it's seen as a weakness – and any weakness in football is exploited as a means of gaining the upper hand.
At this point, I'm going to switch tack somewhat. For years, the FA has been pushing its Kick Racism Out Of Football campaign, aiming to... well... kick racism out of football. They've done some good work and, aside from a strange resurgence in a throwback to the 1980s last year (please, next time we have an 80s revival can avoid the riots and the football racism and just reform The Police?), the number of racist incidents has decreased. In my match-going life I can remember witnessing one.
It was Manchester City vs. Wolves. The visitors, losing heavily, were making a substitution and the little-known Congo-born Belgian footballer Geoffrey Mujangi Bia was being introduced. From behind me, a man shouted in response to the player joining the action: “Oh! Another nig nog!” To which, several fans around me turned to him and told him it wasn't acceptable, while others audibly expressed shock, tutted or shook their heads. He replied, sarcastically, “Oh, isn't it?”
Strange put-down, considering the number of black players at City, too.
However, a few weeks later, a lady behind me, somewhere near to the racist shouter, aimed something similar at one of her own players, Jerome Boateng. He wasn't the toughest of defenders and was often found wearing his socks right up to the lowest end of his shorts, leaving no flesh exposed to the Manchester weather. And, on not committing fully to a challenge, he was “a soft faggot”.
Nobody said anything.
It disappoints me now that I didn't have the bottle back then to do it myself. Even so, I'm still not convinced I'd do it if it happened this weekend: There seems something very unappealing at shouting, “Hello everyone, I'm a homosexual!” to a stand of football supporters, even if the majority of which would have no problem with it at all. And that's not really me. One of my friends recently said that one of the things he liked about me was that I didn't let anybody get to me about the fact I fancy men and not women. His actual words were: “It's like you say 'fuck off, I'm gay, deal with it' and then get on with your life.”
When I fleetingly played 11-a-side, pub-team football, it seemed homophobia was a good topic for 'banter' (I hate that word, I promise I won't use it again). My friends, who knew about my sexuality, would say afterwards that they felt uncomfortable listening to it while it was going on; I'd feel the same, yet again neither I nor they had the balls to say anything.
In other contexts, I have confronted homophobia. But not at football. I think it all comes back round to that original maxim: What if nobody backs me up? I know, morally, I'll be correct, but I'll feel daft in front of everybody else there.
However, I feel the need to add a caveat to this: I've painted football fans in quite a bad light. In fact, more often than not, they're fine and can be very (inoffensively) witty at times. I should stress that these incidents aren't a weekly occurrence, more things that stick in my mind because of the situation I'm in. I'm a gay man in a situation where there are very few gay men; that doesn't make it right, but it does explain somewhat why more people are able to just brush it away. I believe the majority wouldn't bat an eyelid about my sexuality outside of the context of being in a crowd of football fans.
Both playing and watching football is a big part of my life. I just don't know how compatible it is with another big part of my life at the moment, but if the trend goes the way of the fight against racism then it shouldn't be so long before that changes.
In the days following the coming out of ex-Leeds winger Robbie Rogers, the reaction has been fairly standard; Twitter went with (mainly) 'who cares?'. In a way, it's admirable that there are football fans that genuinely don't think it is news, but it saddens me to know what reaction he would likely have faced had he not also retired at the same time.
Incidentally, did you know that, last year, the FA launched a six-point action plan to combat homophobia in football called 'Opening Doors and Joining In'? No, me neither. That one completely passed me by, despite me being interested in both gay rights and football, and also a match-going fan that buys programmes and watches every highlights show going. Clearly there's a lot to be done.
It’s time to face the issue, especially given the FA’s previously cancelled anti-homophobia video. “Does he take it up the arse?” Well, actually, yes he does. Anyone got a problem with that? You do? Ok – well, get over yourself and enjoy the game, because that's what I'm trying to do.
Anyone else? No?