Pride not prejudice

The Big Interview - Arsène Wenger

For a sport that prides itself on its progressive nature and encourages a sense of tolerance, homophobia remains a difficult issue for football.

Major strides have been made over the past 20 years to tackle racism both on the pitch and in the stands, but can the same really be said for how it deals with the abuse of gay people?

The former Leeds United midfielder Robbie Rogers came out last year upon his retirement and said it would be “impossible” for anyone to continue playing in the circumstances.

Earlier this year, the former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger confirmed that he was gay just three months after he had walked away from football. Like Rogers, he did not believe he could have done it while still playing due to his “fear” of the reaction.

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Former basketball star John Amaechi - the first NBA player ever to come out - recently said in an interview that he felt that football had a “toxic” culture for gay people. “The real problem, especially with football, is that it has never evaluated itself properly,” he told the BBC. “The sport has never understood just how toxic it is… it’s toxic in many different ways, but football doesn’t see itself like that. It sees itself as this amazing, wonderful, bold and progressive organisation. As an analogy, it is the fat bloke who looks at himself in the mirror and beaming back at him is an Adonis. It’s a self-image that bears no resemblance to reality.”

His point was seemingly strengthened when, in March, Bayern Munich fans unfurled a homophobic banner about Arsenal during their Champions League last-16 clash at the Allianz Arena. Uefa, to its credit, acted swiftly and closed a section of the ground for their quarter-final against Manchester United. But the damage had been done, and the question remains: is football doing enough to address and eradicate homophobia?

The Arsenal Magazine asked Arsène Wenger for his thoughts on the matter, and how the sport can improve its environment to make it more welcoming for gay players and fans.

Arsène, you saw what happened with the homophobic banner at Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. How frustrating is it for you that incidents like these still exist in a game that sees itself as so progressive?

I think football is there to provoke moments of happiness, excitement and positive experiences in people, no matter where they come from, what colour skin they have, what religion they are or what their preferred sexuality is. It’s very sad that some people think that this sport should only be reserved for those who have certain characteristics. It’s open to everybody who loves football and when that doesn’t happen, it’s not acceptable.

John Amaechi recently declared the sport “toxic” for gay people. What are your thoughts on that?

Football in itself is not toxic to anybody. The attitude from some people around the game can be toxic, yes, but football in itself is just enjoyment and a spectacle that you love to watch. When the spectacle is a high level, it becomes art and art is open to everybody. The mentality of some extreme people around the game can be toxic and the job of those who have responsibility for our game is to fight against that. I am one of them and I hope I will always be strong enough to fight against any people who are extremists.

Thomas Hitzlsperger recently became the first former Premier League footballer to come out. What was your reaction to the news?

"He could not come out during his career, which means we still have some progress to make in our game because he should not have had to wait until the end"

Arsene Wenger

I found it brave and I think that normally you should not have had to speak about that. It would be good if four, five, six people come out and after that nobody speaks about it anymore because they just think it is people who live their life like they want to live it. He could not come out during his career, which means we still have some progress to make in our game because he should not have had to wait until the end. But overall he should not have to come out at all because it should just be considered like anything else.

But can you understand why he didn’t do it during his career?

Yes, I can understand it because maybe our society isn’t advanced enough to consider that. He could have been ostracised. I think on that front, society has moved forward in the last 15 or 20 years, but there’s still some improvement to make.

If you look at other sports, there are people like Michael Sam, an American football player, who has recently come out. Before the draft, people in the US said his value might drop because he’s gay…

It’s wrong to consider that - you would say that your value drops only if your performances drop. I believe that in the game you have to consider what’s important, and that is what happens on the football pitch and how well people behave on their private life and the value of a player is considered just through his attitude and his performances.

It must be unrealistic to think that there are no gay footballers in the Premier League, surely?

If you look at the statistics, it is completely unrealistic. We are not here to search for who is gay and who is not. I think what is important is that the players contribute to the results of their team through an outstanding attitude, no matter what their sexuality is.

What would your advice be to a player that came to you and told you they were gay? Would it depend on their strength of character?

First of all I would say to him, ‘Look, thank you for telling me but that doesn’t bother me. You live your life like you want to live it’. I would just try to speak about his game and his attitude on the pitch, and the rest I wouldn’t bother too much about.

But the first Premier League footballer who comes out will attract huge media interest…

Because of that media interest, maybe no one will come out. You have to consider now that, in a society where you have gay marriage, why should people not come out? For me, it is not a problem because what is important is how a player behaves, how much he loves football and how much he respects his partners. That’s what the game is about.

Robbie Rogers doesn’t believe many fans are homophobic in today’s society, but that in a stadium they might hurl abuse just to get a slight edge for their team. What do you think about that?

"If a guy comes out and says, “I am gay,” on every single Saturday or Sunday people will only bring that to him. But he is a complex person like everybody else, and he wants to be recognised as that"

Arsene Wenger

It’s always difficult to know what the percentage is of people who are homophobic and those who just want to take advantage of making somebody weaker. When I hear a guy full of hate, I imagine his children watching him on television and coming across like that. I don’t think they would be very proud. You don’t need to hate people to support your team, you just need to support your team. That doesn’t demand disrespect. If you ask anybody who sits in the stands, ‘what would you love to be?’ they would tell you they would like to be respected. You can demand exactly the same from them.

How much do you think that a fear of abuse from the stands might hold somebody back from coming out?

I don’t know how much, but it will hold people back. What you don’t want is for people [to be seen] as one thing in life: thing. So if a guy comes out and says, “I am gay,” on every single Saturday or Sunday people will only bring that to him. But he is a complex person like everybody else, and he wants to be recognised as that. Look, we fight against racism and it is a kind of racism for me. It is just hate of people being different, and we want to fight against that.

You mention racism. Football, especially in this country, has made such progress in terms of dealing with that but not quite the same in terms of tackling homophobia. Does that seem strange to you?

It will be done as well. I think racism was a more urgent case to deal with. Why? Because you cannot hide behind that. You cannot fight against a cause when nobody comes out. Racism existed a long time against black people and that was not acceptable, of course, and that was visible. As long as people don’t come out, what can you do? It is less an obvious case. I feel football has moved forward in the past 15 to 20 years against racism and there is still some work to do. There is still racism existing inside some stadiums and some crowds so you always have to be very cautious and vigilant to fight against it because it quickly comes back. Accepted disrespectful jokes can lead to racism. If you read some documents, it starts with jokes, then goes to acceptance and after it becomes real and after that it becomes violent. So we have to step in at the first moments of racism or homophobia.

How do we change the culture of football to make it an environment where it’s more comfortable for a player to come out?

By fighting against violence in society. If you look at the 1950s and now at 2014, I feel there is more tolerance and acceptance of differences. There is less violence in terms of behaviour in the stadium. Football has moved forward a lot, like society has. It’s always a non-stop fight.

People say that it needs one player to come out in the Premier League and others will follow and the issue will be resolved. But is that too simplistic?

Maybe it is a little bit simplistic, but the best is that nobody has to come out and we just consider everyone as a human being without singling anyone out for one thing he behaves in another way. The best way is to accept everyone like they are.

At Arsenal we have the ‘Gay Gooners’ and the ‘Arsenal for Everyone’ initiative. How proud are you of that?

Arsenal for Everyone

Arsenal for Everyone is an ongoing initiative that celebrates the diversity of the club and its fan base. Its work in equality and diversity encourages everybody connected with Arsenal - irrespective of race, age, religion and belief, sexual orientation, disability and gender - to feel an equal sense of belonging.

The club launched the Arsenal for Everyone initiative more than five years ago to celebrate the diversity of the Arsenal family, and it formed a large part in the club’s work to becoming the first professional football club to achieve the advanced level of Kick It Out’s Equality Standard, a framework devised for clubs to help with their equality and diversity practices.

I’m very proud that Arsenal always fights against these discriminations. Arsenal are recognised and respected for two things: a respect of tradition and that the Club always tries to move forward. I think these kind of things show that we can do both.

How important is it that players – be they straight, bisexual or homosexual – and supporters feel that they belong? As a fan, you need to feel that you won’t be surrounded by homophobic abuse in the stands…

Yes, it’s important to respect everybody and be tolerant with everybody. What has to unite people is the support of the team. What is the support of the team? It’s an experience of your life, because most of the time, fans have supported Arsenal since they were young kids, so it’s a part of their lives. Support of the team is also to stand behind them and the football you love and encourage your side, no matter where you are from.

You’ve said before that you hope the game reaches a point where being gay in football is no longer newsworthy. How close are we to that day?

I don’t know how close we are but we certainly still have some steps to take to get there. There’s still some work to do.

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