Homophobia, football, and the French kiss making headlines

A clip of two footballers kissing in front of a stadium full of fans raises questions about homophob

A viral video of two French international footballers tenderly kissing in front of a stadium full of fans has entranced the Francophone media. After scoring against Germany in a friendly match, Olivier Giroud is shown grabbing his teammate Mathieu Debuchy's face with both hands and kissing him on the lips. As one blogger breathlessly wrote, "It was fleeting but passionate."

The clip was played repeatedly on French news channels in slow motion and from a variety of different angles, with pundits and fans agitatedly debating whether it was a moment of harmless heteronormative bonding, or something altogether more subversive. Asserting his heterosexuality, Giroud told the media, "We simply brushed [cheeks]. I was just thanking him. I am an affectionate person. There's nothing more to it." Despite the fact that these two men are resolutely straight, the reaction to the clip raises the question of why a moment of apparent homosexuality in the context of a football match raises so many eyebrows. Sophia Aram in Le Monde asks why:

The virility of football players is so fragile, so sensitive. Why do football players, more than others, need reassurance and to reassure others about their heterosexuality? When will there be a real campaign against homophobia in football? Pictures of star players with open mouth kissing with the slogan, "Football is a sport for gays too"?

Not soon, is the short answer. As a recent BBC documentary highlighted, there are some 5,000 professional footballers in Britain and not one is openly gay. So far, the only footballer who has come out was Justin Fashanu in the early 1990s, a decision which cost him his career and ultimately his life. After a number of front-page scandals, family disputes and taunting from his manager Brian Clough who repeatedly called him a "poof", Fashanu hanged himself. His brother, John Fashanu, said in an interview last week that his brother's claims were merely attention-seeking publicity stunts:

What was a concern to me was somebody going and screaming on the rooftops "I'm black" or "I'm heterosexual" or "I'm gay" to get publicity or money. Making up stories to get attention.

John Fashanu also added that not only was his brother not gay, but that there were no gay footballers at all. "It's 'a macho man's game', he claimed. Given how pervasive these attitudes still seem to be, it is hardly surprising that no other gay footballers have followed in Justin's wake. That is not because they don't exist. The UK's leading purveyor of celebrity secrets, Max Clifford, has claimed that he personally knows "probably half a dozen [players] ... who are either gay or bisexual". He added that footballers won't come out because "'their career would be finished if they were known to be openly gay". He added that an openly gay footballer would be "totally unacceptable to the other players. They would be ostracised...they are as frightened now as they would have been ten years ago."

However, the FA has finally creaked into action. Football's illustrious governing body has begrudgingly launched a campaign to tackle homophobia in the sport with the avowed aim of promoting a "So What?" culture. The FA official in charge of the campaign, Adrian Bevingon, said: "We want to ensure that if any player wishes to be open about their sexuality, then they can do it with the full support of the FA." While this is a positive development, the only achievement of the campaign hitherto has been to send posters out to dressing rooms of the 92 professional teams in England. Given the huge amount of effort put into stamping out, kicking off and showing a red card to racism, the FA's anti-homophobia campaign is distinctly feeble.

In the early 1990s, John Fashunu said of his gay brother, "I wouldn't like to play or even get changed in a facility with him. That's just the way I feel so if I'm like that I'm sure the rest of the footballers are like that. " It remains to be seen if the French kiss that was seen around the world could change all that.

Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Debuchy kiss after a goal during a friendly football match Germany vs France. Photograph: Getty Images
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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories