Rudi Assauer. Photo by Produnis (Wikimedia CC)
The Surrey and England wicket-keeper (this is cricket for those at the back of the class) Steven Davies came out as being gay this week. The news was released in a matter of his own choosing – though the national cricket press had known about it for some time – and was no surprise to his teammates or management who had all been told before England's successful Ashes winning tour over December and January. It didn't matter a jot.
That there was so little real reaction to the news comes as no real shock. We live in relatively enlightened times and, despite the traditions of its benefactors living in another century, cricket fans are an intelligent bunch – more interested in whether his batting can match that of Matthew Prior's than (insert your innuendo here). And nor should it matter, of course. That Gareth Thomas, Wales' 2nd of all time try-scorer did the same a couple of years ago without an adverse word from teammates, opposition or fans was equally something of which all Rugby Union fans can be proud indeed.
But these are cricket and rugby. I hate the idea that they are seen as somehow more gentlemanly than football, but the reactions speak of grown up fans with better things to worry about than the sexual orientation of a player. The old cliche goes that Rugby is a game for barbarians played by gentlemen and football is a game for gentlemen played by barbarians. This is blatantly the kind of horseshit that toffs have been coming out with since attacking the shins (hacking) was outlawed in Association football and the egg-chasing variant was derived from it. But in a game where gouging of the eyes is a common occurrence, a fellow player coming out was treated with barely a glance, with barely a cocked, cauliflowered, ear.
It is an issue in German football too. Before the World Cup Michael Ballack's agent talked about knowing of two national players that were comfortably gay. German 'keeper and one of the heroes of that tournament, Manuel Neuer, then told Bunte magazine that he thought gay players should come out and that they would continue to be judged on their performances on the pitch, not anywhere else. Jürgen Klopp, whose Borussia Dortmund sit twelve points clear at the top of the Bundesliga said last year that gay players would be welcome in his team. That his team is the youngest ever to play in the Bundesliga is instructive to Klopp's wiles. They are a 21st century football team. If, for example, Mario Götze were to come out this week he would have 80,000 people cheering his name still on Friday at home to Köln as long as they remained on course. It is a hell of a lot easier when you are winning games.
Last week I wrote a piece quoting Brian Clough's legendary skill at understanding his players, but his treatment of Justin Fashanu was abhorrent. He obviously didn't "understand" him so well. In his autobiography Clough says he regrets the way he dealt with Fashanu at the time, but the impression remains that his was a reaction to his later suicide, and not the eventual broadening of Clough's mind.
It will take a very brave man to be the first. In a sport that is struggling to get over the hurdles of getting non white men into the management of the game, a gay player would be huge news. That is an indictment of us all. It shouldn't be news. But then it shouldn't have been news that Paul Ince was the first black manager in the English Premiership only three years ago. All the talk after Robert Enke's death was of football dealing with psychological issues more openly, but it has gone backwards again into its comfort zone. The arch machismo of the likes of Rudi Assauer is fortunately, however, dwindling.
It is without doubt that the world will have to deal with an openly gay footballer soon. But despite all of the shortcomings of the world's most popular sport it is also the most inclusive for a reason. All you need to play is a ball. Cricket and Rugby both demand more equipment, and therefore more expense to play. Football is still genuinely, universally, accessible – despite the best efforts of big business. It has worked hard to make ground in the fight against racism and sexism and is winning both of those battles. The step to accepting a gay player won't be such a big one. Football fans delight in their contrariness and they will surprise a lot of people with their reactions when it does happen.