When Olli Kahn criticised the leadership skills of Phillipp Lahm last year, homophobia was probably one of the last things on his mind. Rather a typically crass – and probably slightly envious – attempt to galvanise a generation of footballers he saw as too media friendly, too diplomatic.
His words came to mind the other week, however, when the current FC Bayern and Germany captain publicly urged homosexual players in the Bundesliga not to come out, for fear of repercussions from the media and the fans.
If ever there was an example of weak leadership, this was it. Lahm, the supposed figurehead of a new, progressive era of German football on the field, has – for the second time, no less – displayed a disheartening amount of fear when it comes to his wider responsibilities in football. After making similar suggestions in his autobiography last summer, it is perhaps unsurprising that Lahm has adopted the stance of a reservist when it comes to football’s last taboo.
There is, no doubt, some validity in his opinion. For all football’s admirable – and, in the world of sport, unique – work to expel institutional and societal racism from its community, it remains positively medieval in terms of sexual equality. Sex scandals and footballers are manifold, an integral part of the textured, often ugly tapestry of the modern game. The media and public relish the stories of Neven Subotic’s orgies and Franck Ribéry’s unfortunate encounters with underage women with a somewhat perverse enthusiasm, but should the concept of homosexuality wander unwittingly into a debate, it is greeted with silence at best, and hostility at worst.
It is preposterous to suggest that sexuality has no relevance to football, even more so to declare that the game remains – and is justified in remaining – institutionally heterosexual. And yet Lahm’s assertion that the “the footballing community is not ready to accept homosexual players as a normality” is an astonishingly popular one.
One cannot help but pose the question: when and how does the Germany captain think the coveted “normality” will be attained? Surely not through more silence and passive hostility to the very idea of homosexuality in football? His comments, far from alienating him from those homophobes who are littered through the footballing world as he had hoped, simply implied that it is the responsibility of homosexual players to defend themselves against homophobia, and not the responsibility of the game to change its perceptions according to the world it entertains.
Since Robert Enke’s death in 2009, the awareness of depression and mental pressure among footballing professionals has risen dramatically. The cases of Ralf Rangnick and Babak Rafati have been treated with far more maturity and far more sense than they arguably would have been even four or five years ago. When black players were subject to fan violence, the game did not leave them out in the cold, it attempted – albeit slowly – to change its perceptions.
The same must be done with regard to homophobia. Lahm suggests that being a gay footballer is different to being a gay politician, in that politicians “do not perform in front of 40,000 people every week”. Well no, no they don’t. They perform in front of entire nations. And, as a general rule, those millions of people don’t care whether said politician is gay, straight or even asexual, because they have adapted to a more liberal set of societal values. The idea that football should not be expected to do the same is ridiculous.
Gay players, of course, have every right to remain quiet about their sexuality should they wish to. That is their right as human beings and members of a democratic society. But to have a contemporary as influential as Lahm actively discourage them from exercising the freedom of expression to which they should be equally entitled is a disaster for homosexual footballers.
Openly homosexual former NBA star John Amaechi questioned Phillipp Lahm’s sense of his own responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the comments. He was quite right. The only way football can hope to alter the backward attitudes of many of its fans and professionals is through people with Lahm’s influence setting an appropriate example. The likes of Theo Zwanziger and Mario Gomez appreciate that. Why not Lahm?
Because he would, apparently, rather avoid controversy than see football become more tolerant. What an example to set. What a message to send out to young players and fans. Let us hope he never runs for Chancellor.
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