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.