3rd annual Justin Fashanu Cup shows there is no room in sport for homophobia.
The upcoming Justin Fashanu Cup pits Melbourne Rovers, Melbourne’s gay and lesbian soccer club, against the men of News South Wales gay club, Sydney Rangers. The game is on 22nd October and is hosted by Yarra Jets FC.
Why a gay soccer club?
Rovers was formed in 2008 aiming at improving the health and fitness of gay men and women, and to provide a space free of homophobia. In these 3 years, Rovers have come to the sport for the first time, come back in to the sport or transferred from other clubs. Football was in the blood of Rovers player Alex Mungall long before he knew he was a gay man, but: ‘Playing in a regular club didn’t appeal. I had condemned myself to watching from the sidelines. Rovers got me back to playing after a 20 year hiatus’.
A welcoming environment is the main difference between the Rovers and other sports clubs, and while that may be easy to offer, its impact is big. Victoria University’s Caroline Symonds 2010 ‘Come out to play’ study looked in to gay people’s exposure to sport and its health and social benefits, and it’s findings were stark. 26% of male respondents said there were sports they would like to play and didn’t because of their sexuality. Of these, the most common sports male participants would like to play were the football codes: Australian football (45.0%), rugby (17.5%), soccer (10.0%).
Melbourne Rovers President Heath Wilson says: ‘The Justin Fashanu Cup is important in showing young gay men that football can be for them too.’
Who is Justin Fashanu?
Rovers and Rangers put on this match to commemorate football star Justin Fashanu. Fashanu was the first professional footballer to come out. His 1981 transfer to Nottingham Forest made him Britain's first £1m footballer. In 1990 Fashanu encountered hostility after coming out. Many former colleagues spoke out in anger against him, stating that gays had no place in a team sport, and his brother John (also a top flight footballer) publicly disowned him.
Although he claimed he was generally well accepted by his fellow players, he admitted they would often joke maliciously about his sexual orientation, and he also became the target of constant crowd abuse because of it.
Fashanu’s died by suicide in 1998.
Fashanu’s story inspires the international Justin Campaign, designed to write a better story for young people thinking about making football part of their life.
Symbol of the international Justin Campaign.
With Justin Fashanu playing in Adelaide early in his career, and in Adelaide and Wellington, after coming out, it’s fitting that Australia’s biggest football match between gay players commemorates him. There is no stronger symbol of the impact of homophobic abuse in sport, and his achievements remain relevant because he didn’t let being gay stop him playing.
However, Fashanu is still the highest profile player to come out in soccer, and we are yet to have a gay role model in Aussie Rules.
Looking in to the headspace of a gay sportsman
Things are moving on. Last month, A-League club Adelaide’s new marquee import Evgeniy Levchenko’s showed support for gay players. Saddened by the suicide of Fashanu, and made aware of it when a friend came out in private to him, he has spoken out about the culture in which being honest about sexuality is taboo and it’s impact.
"I supported him before he made the step and he said "you know, for me it was just like living 25 years in prison," Levchenko said.
"So I understood him ... yeah, he was hiding all of his feelings and emotions all of his life."
"There are a lot of football players ... and with that there are gay football players," said Levchenko.
Also this year, the Justin Fashanu cup day program features an inaugural friendly women’s match between gay women playing in Melbourne leagues. This comes in the year when the Women’s World Cup was blighted by a Nigerian coaches boast of expunging the scourge of lesbianism from the team. The reaction of FIFA has been strong, if retrospective, however the swift exit of Nigeria from the tournament sends a stronger message: limit your choices at your peril.
In Australia, while no elite level soccer players have come out, and Jason Akermanis has recommended no AFL players do, there was a reminder here of the importance of countering this last month from the sport of hockey, where an affirmative action program has been proving effective.
Gus ‘the Goalkeeper’ Johnston chose to come out publicly via you tube video last month, after 20 years in hockey at a senior level for Essendon, including representative state level for Victoria. His video, hosted on you tube illustrates that depression and suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of their level of achievement, skill or ability to ‘fit in’.
Melbourne Rovers President Heath Wilson welcomes Evgeniy Levchenko’s support. “The Justin Fashanu Cup shows there are many gay players. The support of a top professional is important, and we thank Evgeniy for that.’
Justin Fashanu Cup teams after the 2010 cup was awarded to Melbourne Rovers.
Are things improving?
Melbourne Rovers men and women play within the adult teams of Yarra Jets in the leagues of the Football Federation of Victoria(FFV). Jets Secretary Nick Petroulias says: ‘The Yarra Jets are proud to host the Fashanu Cup this year. Clubs need to get the Fashanu Cup. We hope it keeps growing each year. We formed as a club a few years ago to offer everyone a chance to play football. Sports like football unite people and it’s future is about inclusion. But let’s hope Melbourne give Sydney a whipping’.
Senior coach at Yarra Jets is former Socceroo Hammy McMeechan. ‘All that matters to me is – what can you do with a ball. When I started my career, after getting offered my first big break, I was asked what religion I was. That stopped me playing senior football briefly. I didn’t expect 40 odd years later I would be coaching a squad with a lot of gay players, but they are good guys and some of them are talented players.
The Justin Fashanu Cup 2011 will be held on Saturday 22nd October, with the program commencing with the women’s match at noon and kick-off of the Cup match at 1pm. It is held at Clifton Hill’s Quarries Park and is free. Yarra Jets and Melbourne Rovers invite you to join us. For further details of the event: see Melbourne Rovers on melbourneroverssc.org.au
For further comment, and opportunities to talk to players from either team, contact:
Alex Mungall Joseph Roppolo
Player, Melbourne Rovers SC Coach, Sydney Rangers FC
(M) 0438834388 (M) 0408 444 892
Adelaide United's Evgeniy "Lev" Levchenko believes gay footballers should not fear coming out.
Homophobia rife in Aussie sport, report shows
Come Out To Play: The Sports Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) People in Victoria.