Image Credit: @JoshuaCavallo via Twitter
One day this won’t be brave. But for now, it is. One day this will just be a part of sport. But for now, it isn’t.
When Australian footballer Josh Cavallo came out as gay just over a fortnight ago, he knew he would instantly become worldwide news. What he couldn’t predict quite so easily was whether the reception would be positive or negative. Was men’s professional football finally ready to welcome a homosexual player? The answer has been a resounding YES.
It is a damning indictment of the men’s game at elite level that before Cavallo’s social media post entered the public domain late last month, not a single footballer was openly gay in any of the world’s top-tier domestic leagues. It provides a ludicrous statistical anomaly. Gay footballers exist. They just haven’t felt they can tell the world yet. Well, now one has. Josh Cavallo’s story is a captivating one. But the hope is that his strength can now be harnessed by more gay footballers who need that final reassurance.
"What a crippling thought: to imagine an existence where you feel your biggest passion and your sexuality cannot be married together in harmony."
In 1981, Justin Fashanu became the world’s first £1 million black player when he moved from Norwich City to Nottingham Forest. Fashunu went on to play for the likes of West Ham United, Manchester City and the England U21s. In 1990 — while playing in the lower leagues at the end of his career — Fashanu came out as gay. The story was broken by The Sun, who used the hideous word ‘confessed.’ No one confesses to being gay now. They simply announce that they are. Or they don’t... if they’re an elite male footballer.
His brother John Fashanu, who played for the England seniors, called Justin an “outcast” and said he never wished to share a changing room or football pitch with him again. John Fashanu did later apologise and acknowledge that he had been “selfish” and “wrong.” But his reaction was depressingly familiar to his brother, whose bravery did not get the reception it would today.
Justin Fashanu was the world’s first ever gay footballer. In 1998, he hanged himself.
Time then stopped until the next high-profile male footballer came out. In 2014, a year after his retirement, former Aston Villa and Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger announced that he was gay. He had previously split from a girlfriend of eight years just a month before their marriage, and said he had only recently learned that he was gay. He added that he felt he couldn’t have come out during his playing career.
Fast forward to October 2021, and Adelaide United’s Josh Cavallo became the first gay active footballer in any top league world-wide. He told his teammates first and was delighted by their response. They said they wouldn't treat him any differently and that they saw him as the same Josh they knew the day before. Justin Fashanu never received a response even remotely similar.
21-year-old left-back Cavallo then went public with a sit-down interview video on his social media channels. “I was counting down the hours, the minutes, the days,” he told The Guardian. “This was such a long time coming for me. I was really, really, really excited. When I pressed that ‘post’ button, I instantly had this sign of relief. I was honestly on top of the world.” His phone started crashing instantly, such was the phenomenal reception he received. “I had something like over 7,000 messages on Instagram.”
In the hours after his video went live, Gerard Piqué, Gary Lineker, Antoine Griezmann and Marcus Rashford posted messages of support. He received private messages from Jesse Lingard and Zlatan Ibrahimović. Cavallo is pleased that those world stars used their reaches in such a way. “They’re straight footballers that say: ‘This is perfectly fine and natural. It happens in the outside world so why can’t it happen in football?’” When Marcus Rashford speaks, people listen. We know that. The same is now emphatically true about Josh Cavallo.
But it hadn’t all been easy. “I thought of alternatives,” Cavallo admitted. “I didn’t want to continue playing football and being a closeted gay man and not happy. On the pitch it was great, but when I got off the pitch it was hell. I didn’t want to be somebody else. I wanted to be myself. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t happy outside football. I was very depressed.”
Cavallo found strength — something that takes a lot of courage in the football community. His strength has restarted a conversation left lamentably dormant for far, far too long. The Rainbow Laces campaign in English football is a force for good, and has its place in football. Yet Cavallo’s story is tangible, it’s real. The hope is that his confidence can inspire more gay footballers to break out from their eternal self-suppression.
What a crippling thought: to imagine an existence where you feel your biggest passion and your sexuality cannot be married together in harmony. Among the horde of messages he has received have been one or two from footballers in similar positions to him. Some have asked for help and advice. Others have thanked him for making their lives easier. This story matters because it offers a glimpse of a time when it no longer will. Josh Cavallo has changed the game.