It's time for football to get as tough on homophobia as it is on racism

It will take more than one weekend of footballers wearing rainbow laces to really tackle the problem.

"In football it's obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No one. It's crazy and sad." They were the words of Robbie Rogers, the former Leeds United player, who decided that once he became openly gay it would be impossible for him to continue in English football. He now plays Major League Football for LA Galaxy, seemingly a more pleasant place for a gay footballer than the home of football.

The saddest thing about the whole affair was that there was barely a single commentator who disagreed with Rogers' assessment that an openly gay footballer would be made to feel like an outcast in English football. Gay footballers have been advised by publicists not to 'come out' as it would damage their careers. British football needs to move beyond token gestures and really confront the homophobia that is putting the game out of step with British society.

Football should show the same determination to root out homophobia that it showed to root out racism over the past few decades. Admittedly, football still has a way to go on the racism issue, but we’ve made considerable progress compared to where football was in the 1970s and 1980s and compared to pretty much every other European country. I can’t remember the last time I heard a racist comment at a football match, whereas they were still relatively commonplace when I first started going to matches in the late 1980s.

On the flip side, football hasn’t made anything like the same level of progress in rooting out homophobia and it really needs to start taking the problem seriously. I’ve heard the chant at Sunderland away matches about the Gallowgate End at St James’s Park being "full of poofs, shits and wankers." Other teams use the same chant about their rivals. Throwaway homophobic words remain commonplace at football grounds around the country – I’ve heard words like "poof", "faggot" and "queer" being used on the terraces so many times in the past few years. It’s only a few years since Spurs fans sang a grotesquely offensive chant based on scurrilous rumours about Sol Campbell.

Football clubs should stop paying lip service to the issue and start taking it seriously. In February, the FA launched a "toolkit" about homophobia in football, but a month later only 29 of the 92 professional clubs had signed up to the football vs. homophobia campaign and even some of those did so half heartedly.   

It’s pretty clear that racist abuse is increasingly dealt with properly by clubs, with supporters being thrown out and banned for racist abuse. They need to start learning from that and get tough on homophobic chanting and homophobic abuse, using real sanctions to show that they’re treating the issue with the gravity it deserves. The football ground shouldn’t be one of the only places in modern Britain where homophobia is seen as acceptable.

There’s obviously a shortage of gay role models in modern football and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that is going to end soon. But that shouldn’t stop top professionals and household names speaking out against homophobia and making clear that they’d be very happy to have a gay teammate. Kick Racism Out Of Football was effective because top footballers were willing to support the campaign and, in many cases be very vocal about their support. They should be prepared to show the same level of support to a campaign against homophobia in sport. And that means more than occasional players appearing shirtless in a gay lifestyle magazine – they should be making the case in the Sun, on Soccer Saturday and Match of the Day.

This weekend, Stonewall, Paddy Power and Joey Barton are encouraging footballers to wear rainbow laces in their boots to signal their determination to eliminate homophobia. It’s a good move and I hope that my beloved Sunderland show their support. But it says a lot that the campaign comes from gay rights campaigners, an Irish bookmaker and a footballer playing in France on loan from QPR, rather than the FA, the Premiership clubs and top Premiership footballers. And it will take more than one weekend of footballers wearing rainbow laces to really tackle the problem. 

The people at the top of English football and the Premiership in particular (one of our great national successes) have to show that they’re taking the issue of homophobia in football very seriously indeed. Homophobic language or behaviour should be no more acceptable on the terraces, or on the pitch, than it is anywhere else in society, and clubs and football authorities have to emphasise that through actions as well as words. Hopefully that will mean that the next time a footballer such as Robbie Rogers decides to 'come out' he will feel comfortable continuing to play in English football.

Joey Barton of QPR wears rainbow coloured shoe laces during the Sky Bet Championship match between Queens Park Rangers and Brighton & Hove Albion at Loftus Road. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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