The Telegraph Interview Rhys

Words by Same Rowe

Modern football is unashamedly cosmopolitan.

Elite players are no longer mere footballers, they’re boxer shorts and sunglasses salesmen; they sport rippled abs, spray tans and designer beards; regularly sparking new trends with their latest hairstyle, endorsement or choice of brightly coloured boot.

And yet, while many players – and fans (albeit on a much smaller budget) – conform to a new, meticulously groomed male archetype (see: The Spornosexual), there remains a sickness in football that has refused to budge since the beautiful game’s inception: homophobia.

Though there have been recent initiatives to cleanse the sport of the anti-gay chants and homophobic abuse levied at players, opposing fans, even entire teams (in the case of Brighton and Hove Albion), no amount of rainbow-coloured shoelaces can disguise the fact that not one professional footballer out of 5,000 in the UK is openly gay.

Now, a Kickstarter funded short film is seeking to tackle the issue head on.

“If you consider that racist abuse from the terraces is front page news when it happens and heavily punished, homophobia doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously, even though the law states they’re equally severe,” says Rhys Chapman, director of Wonderkid.

“I think the rest of the world has been under a lot of pressure to change, whereas football has maybe avoided it slightly, because the key decision makers have stayed the same – it’s still a very middle class, white male environment.

“But I think most homophobia cases today purely come down to a lack of education.

The film project – which is about a young gay footballer’s struggle to find acceptance in the hyper-macho world of football – has received over £25,000 of funding and has been backed by the Kevin Spacey Foundation, LGBT charity Galop and gay-friendly seven-a-side team Soho FC, along with over 180 others.

Actor and Stonewall co-founder Ian McKellen lent his voice to the Kickstarter trailer, while the Football Assocation allowed Chapman and his crew to shoot the video at Wembley Stadium. Yet, in spite of such “overwhelming” support, it is organisations such as the FA that Chapman believes needs to do more.

“I think it needs to come from everyone in the game,” claims the 25-year-old filmmaker. “The Rainbow Laces campaign was great to raise awareness, but it was just one weekend, and I think it needs to be a consistent battle.

“If you look at what’s been done with racism in the game as a benchmark, I think change can happen. I don’t doubt it. I think the media are on the right side of the issue and it’s being talked about more and more – so where the spotlight has not been turned on the issue [in the past], it is now.”

Irrespective of a few fleeting victories, like the Rainbow Laces campaign, or the increase of LGBT supporters groups at top clubs (such as Arsenal’s Gay Gooners), a small strain of brainless fan will still continue to sing anti-Semitic, racist or indeed homophobic chants, in hope of scoring an advantage over their rivals. It’s a factor that can deter LBGT people from going to a match or even playing football.

“From what I’ve found, there are a lot of people that love football, have always wanted to play football, but have ultimately felt it’s not for them because of the environment,” says Chapman. “At grassroots level especially it is quite hostile – there’s a lot of shouting, a lot of blame, it’s not a friendly environment for anyone, really. But if you know it’s a homophobic environment and you were a gay player, then you would be turned off by it.”

It’s for reasons such as this that football has stayed largely in the closet, while it doesn’t help that the sport’s sole example of an openly homosexual player is the tragic tale of Justin Fashanu – who came out in 1990, received abuse from fans, fellow players and management, and committed suicide in 1998.

“If you look at [openly gay NFL player] Michael Sams – it has affected his career, whereas the only previous example footballers have is Justin Fashanu. At the time he was a young black man in quite a racist environment coming out as gay, but that’s the only example players have apart from [former Leeds defender] Robbie Rogers or [ex-Aston Villa midfielder] Thomas Hitzlsperger, who waited until they retired.”

While Chapman doesn’t expect his film to inspire a fleet of homosexual players to out themselves publicly upon its release next year (“the game needs to change first,” he says), he remains confident that Wonderkid will help raise awareness and change opinions of homosexuality in football – whether amongst players, club executives or fans both young and old.

“When I first set out as a filmmaker I thought it important to educate an audience, as well as just tell a nice story,” says Chapman. “You can read articles and statistics about [homophobia], but as a result of there being no openly gay players you can’t see the detrimental effect that might have.

“I’ve always thought that film was a powerful tool for change, hopefully people will now open their eyes to something like this.”

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