A quadragintillion to one. That’s the odds that there are no gay or bisexual professional footballers in the UK. And yet the beautiful game hasn’t had an out gay pro player since former Hearts striker Justin Fashanu in the 1980s.
In any other sector of work this would be unheard of – yet for years in football it has been quietly accepted, with anti-gay language on the pitch an unwelcome guest at many matches.
So in 2009, when Stonewall asked football fans how they would react if there was a gay player on their team, it surprised some commentators that two-thirds would feel comfortable if a player in their club came out. Most worryingly for the sport, seven in ten fans who had attended matches in the last five years had heard anti-gay language and abuse on the terraces. With such a homophobic environment hanging over the sport it was little surprise that there were voices at all levels in the sporting community saying that this must change.
Fast forward to 2013 and Stonewall teamed up with Paddy Power to give all those professional footballers who wanted to show their support for gay players the opportunity to do so. The idea was simple: take a pair of rainbow laces, thread them into your boots, play a game in them.
No-one was to be forced to wear them, the laces had been trialled and met professional footballing kit requirements and – as they were supplied free to all 134 professional clubs in the UK – it wasn’t going to cost clubs or players a penny. Add to that a cheeky catchphrase and support from QPR midfielder Joey Barton and the scene was set for the highest profile campaign ever to make football more gay-friendly.
The results were staggering, exceeding Stonewall’s greatest hopes. Players from 52 different professional clubs – 40 per cent of the total number of clubs in the UK – wore rainbow laces.
The media devoured the story, with coverage appearing in tabloid and broadsheet newspapers alike, as well as across regional and national TV. Encouragingly, broadcast pundits showed their support for the laces on Match of the Day, BT Sports Football Show and Sky’s Soccer AM. Sporting heroes including Gary Lineker, Boris Becker, Clare Balding, Gareth Thomas and Matt Le Tissier all threw their weight behind the campaign.
So it’s disappointing that, barely days after the campaign, a professional player has chosen to use homophobic language to abuse a gay person on Twitter.
No campaign, no matter how effective, was ever going to rid football of homophobia overnight. But the level of support, from fans, players and clubs alike shows that change isn’t just needed but wanted. This is a future for football to aspire to, when it truly can become the beautiful game for the whole country.
• Colin Macfarlane is director of Stonewall Scotland