How Jake Daniels can usher the grisly world of football into a new age of enlightenment
You might hope the stage had been reached where a gay footballer did not have to be saluted for his courage in coming out.
At a time when the Marylebone Cricket Club has just named Stephen Fry, No 15 on last year’s Pride Power List, as its next president, the national game should surely have evolved to the point where 17-year-old Jake Daniels could declare his sexuality in a less stressful setting than a television interview.
But after a weekend that has witnessed Nazi salutes at a Premier League ground, plus the reported refusal of one Paris Saint-Germain player to compete in a shirt that rendered his number in rainbow colours, you realise that tolerance in football is far from a given.
This is a realm so historically antediluvian in its attitudes that, as Graeme Le Saux found out, you can be accused of being gay just for having a university education or for collecting a few antiques.
Against that grisly backdrop, the impact of Daniels’ announcement that he is gay should scarcely be underestimated. The very fact that he is the first British professional footballer to do so since the tragic Justin Fashanu, the player who took his own life in 1997, reflects the glacial pace of progress. But the poise with which he handled the significance of the moment, confidently explaining his desire for “people to know the real me”, gives hope that football’s dam wall of entrenched homophobia could soon be breached.
One reason for optimism lies in Daniels’ relatively tender age. At 17, he is too young to be scarred by the more overt prejudice of football’s recent past. He was not even born when Robbie Fowler moronically taunted Le Saux on the pitch, or when Luiz Felipe Scolari said, just prior to leading Brazil to glory at the 2002 World Cup: “If I found out that one of my players was gay, I would throw him off the team.”
Instead, Daniels inhabits an era where Apple’s Tim Cook – chief executive of the world’s first trillion-dollar company, is gay, and where Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to be confirmed to a United States cabinet, is heavily tipped as a candidate for president in 2024.
If homosexuality constitutes no barrier to being a prospective leader of the free world, then why on earth should young gay footballers be so tortured about presenting their true selves?
Sadly, events of just the last week demonstrate why they might be deterred. Last Saturday, PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye allegedly missed his team’s 4-0 win over Montpellier because he did not want to be associated with their rainbow-numbers gesture.
The report, by French broadcaster RMC, has already stoked fury, with national campaigning body Rouge Direct stating: “Homophobia is not an opinion but a crime. The league and PSG must ask Gueye to explain himself very quickly – and punish him if necessary.”
Manifestations of bigotry in the Premier League can be depressingly frequent, with Brentford’s Rico Henry and Ivan Toney claiming members of their family were racially abused during their victory at Goodison Park at the weekend.
It is hardly a landscape in which gay players would feel encouraged to come out, especially when one YouGov survey in 2019 suggested that up to 20 per cent of fans were still “comfortable” with expressions of homophobia.
Perhaps Daniels, though, can usher in a fresh age of enlightenment. “Lying all the time isn’t what I want to do,” he insists.
If he can show such composure and speak with such certainty at 17, then surely he can persuade others following in his wake that they need not go through the same agonies.
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