The support for Josh Cavallo was unanimous and vocal. Players lined up to congratulate the Adelaide United player. Their clubs did the same. Everyone from Gerard Piqué and Raphaël Varane to Gary Lineker and Joey Barton. Every club from Sunderland to Athletic Bilbao to Liverpool and Juventus.
“I want to thank you for this step that you take,” Piqué wrote to Cavallo on Twitter. “The world of football is far behind and you are helping us move forward.” It felt like the sport of professional football, so long associated with homophobia and the repression of individual sexuality, was determined to make the young full-back’s decision to come out a moment.
If that was the case it was understandable, based on the remarkable fact that Cavallo became the only openly gay man playing top-flight professional football anywhere in the world. This statistic applies as much to England as anywhere else and the challenge for the game, especially at its professional summit, is how to now create more moments where congratulations are in order.
According to Liz Ward, the director of programmes at Stonewall, Cavallo’s actions should be a catalyst for change, with allyship and supportive environments a crucial factor. “Coming out as a gay footballer in the public eye takes incredible courage and we’re delighted that Josh’s loved ones and teammates have been so supportive,” she says. “His brave decision will undoubtedly mean a lot to lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer sportspeople around the world, who are too often held back from playing and watching the sports they love. All sports need to do more to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ people.”
The FA’s director of equality, diversity and inclusion, Edleen John, agrees with much of that critique. “We have to be honest and say there has been a historical context where it’s been challenging for men in the professional game to come out,” she says. “We’ve talked about that over a number of years and we’re still talking about that now. The reality is that we have to support people who come out – in the women’s or the men’s game – and we have to be vocal about what that support looks like. Nobody should feel pushed out or that they have to come out. It has to be a welcoming and supportive environment.”
John observes that the issue of social media abuse taken up so assertively by football authorities this year pertains to homophobic messages just as it does to those that are racist. “We’re mindful that one of the key barriers that stops people from coming out is the fear of online abuse,” she says. But she also mentions the ‘b’ word, a pernicious behaviour that has proven difficult to shift.
“We have to be proactive in challenging the negativity and banter around individual sexuality,” she says. Explaining abuse away as a joke has “historically been an excuse, and you’ve heard people say I don’t want to experience the banter that comes with that, I don’t want to hear the chants that come from spectators. We have to do better as a game and as a nation to make people feel that they can be themselves, feel welcomed and be valued.”
For Simone Pound, who heads up EDI at the Professional Footballers’ Association, the key to moving beyond banter is education; the simple process of listening. The PFA delivers workshops to players in their clubs on discrimination. They focus on the use of language. “It’s just explaining that using homophobic language as banter is really unhelpful and could cause people who are gay to feel excluded or isolated. From that a lot of interesting conversation comes out.
“Those workshops I feel are really useful. It needs to be part and parcel of players’ education and also, really importantly, coaches. Coaches set the culture, they need to be really comfortable and knowledgeable and aware of the language they use and differences in identity.”
There is no doubt a desire both within the game and among many supporters for football to make progress, to create a situation where more players feel confident to come out and for that to happen in the Premier League, partly for the signal it would send. But Pound stresses caution amid the enthusiasm.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on anyone that they are going to come out and be the most influential role model,” she says. “That narrative is also keeping people in the closet. We’ve got role models already, starting with Justin Fashanu, all the players who have come out since and all the openly gay athletes around the world. The person who comes out and is playing in the Premier League will be joining a group of people, they won’t be out there on their own.”