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Is Soccer Ready to Retire Its Last Taboo?

As a teenager, Collin Martin felt he had to make a choice. For as long as he could remember, his ambition had been to become a professional soccer player, to make a living doing the thing he loved. He had a sense, though, that it was not compatible with who he was. Martin was gay, and there were — as far as he knew — no gay soccer players.

The two things, he came to believe, could not coexist. He could either play soccer, or he could be himself. In his telling, he approached the choice with a cool rationality.

“This doesn’t seem like something I can take with me while I pursue my dreams,” he said of his logic. “I was more than ready to be in the closet. Forever.” Or at least, he thought, long enough “for me to live out my dream.”

In reality, that contrast was not quite that stark. In 2018, at age 23, and while he was playing for Minnesota United in Major League Soccer, Martin came out as gay. He was thought to be the only openly gay male professional soccer player in the world at the time. There were, he said, occasional awkward moments with teammates, but he found the status bearable. His fear had been misplaced. His sexuality and his profession were not in conflict.

And then, a couple of years later, his “nightmare” came to pass. During a crucial, end-of-season game with San Diego Loyal, in the U.S.L. Championship, Martin heard an opponent call him a homophobic slur. He reported it to the referee. Martin was immediately sent off; the official had assumed Martin was using the slur toward him.

What followed was messy and confusing and, from Martin’s perspective, excruciating. In footage of the game, the referee seems bewildered, lost. Martin’s teammates surround him, explaining the misunderstanding. His coach, Landon Donovan, implores his counterpart, the Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz, to remove the implicated player. When he refuses, San Diego’s players take a knee and then walk off the field.

That scene is the climax to “The Last Taboo,” a German documentary charting the experiences of the handful of openly gay players in men’s soccer over the last half century. Compared to the story with which the film opens — the ostracism, abuse and eventual suicide of Justin Fashanu, England’s first openly gay professional — it is hard not to feel encouraged.

Martin might have been abused, and Schantz might not have understood the gravity of the situation, but the player had the support of his teammates, his coach and his club. They were all prepared to sacrifice a game — and a crucial one — for a principle. That alone illustrates that soccer is certainly a more welcoming place now than it was in Fashanu’s day.

So, too, does the story of Jakub Jankto, the Czech international who came out as gay last year. In the weeks after his announcement, there was a considerable amount of concern in the Czech Republic over how he would be treated. Not so much by his teammates — they were “fantastic,” he said — but by the opposition’s fans.

In the film, the angst is centered on a match against Banik Ostrava, one of the fiercest rivals of Jankto’s club at the time, Sparta Prague, a few weeks after his announcement. Their meetings are always tense, the sort of occasions that warrant riot police and prowling Belgian Shepherds. Ostrava’s fans, everyone believed, would shower Jankto in homophobic abuse; soccer’s shameful recidivism would be on display once again.

When match day came, nothing happened. Jankto came on as a substitute. His name was announced to the stadium. There were no boos, no jeers and no coordinated expressions of homophobia. He ran onto the field. The game restarted. Everyone got on with their lives. “It is not a story anymore,” as Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former German international who came out after his retirement, said.

It is hard — no matter the medium, but one imagines particularly in film — to capture the meaning of a story that is no longer a story. Silent disinterest does not make for an especially compelling or emotional finale. It is, in many ways, a triumph, proof that a battle has been won, but it feels somehow unsatisfactory.

And yet it is crucial that those stories are told. That there are many more gay players in the men’s game than the handful who have come out publicly is not really in doubt, even if the evidence for it is necessarily anecdotal, the mathematics sketchy and the tone of the discussion around it somewhere between gleeful gossip and outright witch hunt.

It is equally clear that the majority still feel as Martin once did, as if who they are and what they do are in irreconcilable tension. At one point in “The Last Taboo,” Matt Morton, a player and manager in England’s lower leagues, lists all of the openly gay players in the professional game. He only needs to use their first names.

There is a chance, of course, that will never change, that soccer will never create a safe enough environment for everyone to feel comfortable being who they are.

Martin is a little more positive than that. He is, by disposition, quite a sunny character. He has a wealth of stories detailing how hard it is to be out and a soccer player; the fact that he has been able to build a steady career, to fulfill his dream, does not mean it has not been a challenge.

He prefers, though, not to dwell on the hardest times. “Telling those stories does not help the next person,” he told the filmmakers. Far more constructive, he believes, is to focus on the aspects of his life and career that will reassure others that who they are and what they do are not diametrically opposed.

His experience in that game against Phoenix is instructive. As his teammates leave the field, Martin lifts his jersey above his head. The thing he had feared above all else was coming to pass: His sexuality is, in a literal sense, preventing him and his team from playing soccer. He is visibly distraught.

As his teammates file past him, though, they stretch out their hands to pat him on the back, to ruffle his hair: tiny and potent gestures of solidarity and sympathy. They cannot have understood precisely what he was going through, but they knew he was suffering, and they were on his side.

Looking back, now, that is what Martin chooses to take away from that incident. Not the suffering — agonizing and acute — but the support he received and the symbolism of the moment. He believes that is what will help others know that deciding between who they are and what they do is not a choice they have to make.

Last weekend was a noteworthy one in soccer’s calendar. In the space of roughly 24 hours, we had the Madrid derby, the meeting of the two leading contenders in Italy, and a clash between the sides who will finish second and third in the Premier League. Before, during and after, it felt like the first truly decisive weekend of the season, the moment that the buildup ends and the denouement begins.

That, though, was merely an amuse-bouche; the main event is still to come. Saturday starts with Jordan meeting Qatar in the final of the Asian Cup. Victory for the host would mean Qatar retains its status as continental champion. Qatar, it would seem, is now actually quite good at soccer. Maybe that was the aim of the 2022 World Cup all along.

A couple hours later, another uneasy fairy tale drifts into view: Girona, the plucky underdog in Spain’s title race that, rather unfortunately, is owned and operated by a huge network of clubs that is owned by a nation-state, travels to Real Madrid, hoping to record yet another installment in its improbable title challenge.

By those standards, the meeting of Bayer Leverkusen — Big Pharma F.C. — and Bayern Munich offers a fairly obvious hero. Bayer Leverkusen is unbeaten this season, has a historic reputation for choking and is overseen by European soccer’s brightest young coach. Bayern has won 138 Bundesliga titles in a row, and has grown so bored of winning the championship that it occasionally seems to be actively trying to find ways to implode.

And then, to end it all, Sunday brings the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. In a sense, everyone wins here: Victory for the host country, Ivory Coast, would be an astonishing conclusion to a tournament that began with results so poor that the country fired its coach. Victory for Nigeria would hint at the restoration of Africa’s great superpower in waiting. Either way, it’s probably worth clearing your diary.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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