February 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm EDT | by Nick Napolitano
Kicking homophobia in the grass

‘Football v. Homophobia’ is a project of The Justin Campaign, a U.K.-based group that takes its name from Justin Fashanu, the only soccer player of prominence to ever come out as gay and who later committed suicide. (Photo by Colin Michael Schwartz)

British footballers, or soccer players as they are called stateside, this month launched a worldwide observance they hope will help eradicate intolerance in the world’s most popular sport.

Tolerance games, special tournaments, press conferences and even a flashmob match, all organized under the rubric of “Football v Homophobia,” were held on Feb. 19 across England and beyond, including Spain, Croatia, Denmark, Scotland, Mexico, and here in Washington, D.C.

“We identified some time ago that the prevalence of homophobia in football was not a phenomenon only experienced in the U.K.,” organizer Darren Ollerton told DC Agenda. “We felt that a day where people could express their disapproval of homophobia in football internationally would carry a strong message.”

Football v Homophobia is a project of The Justin Campaign, a U.K.-based group that takes its name from Justin Fashanu, the only soccer player of prominence to ever come out as gay. Fashanu’s career spanned three decades, from 1978 to 1997, and he played at the highest levels of the sport for teams that included Norwich FC, where he began his career, West Ham United, Manchester City, and Nottingham Forest. In 1980 he won the BBC Goal of the Season for a spectacular shot against Liverpool, and the following year he became the first black English player to earn £1 million.

Fashanu suffered a downward spiral following his coming out to the British tabloids in 1990. He had difficulty getting signed by a team, despite brilliant play, his brother, a fellow pro footballer, disavowed him, fans heckled him at games and jeered him in the press, and he was harassed by fellow players. One of his coaches, Brian Clough, subject of the critically acclaimed 2009 film “The Damned United,” famously referred to Fashanu as a “bloody poof.”

By 1998 Fashanu had retired from his professional career and was coaching Maryland Mania, a professional team based in Baltimore that played in USL-1, the league just below Major League Soccer. He fled his home in Ellicott City after Howard County police alleged he had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy. Fashanu claimed the sex was consensual and charges were never formally made. Two months later, though, he would take his own life.

Fashanu’s niece, Amal Fashanu, participated in a Football v Homophobia event in Norwich, England, along with members of Parliament and leadership from Fashanu’s former team, Norwich FC.

“It’s a long road but I still feel that change can come,” Amal Fashanu told the Eastern Daily Press last week. “He would be up there looking down and thinking: ‘I did something good and because of me many other people are actually happy’.”

Federal Triangles Soccer Club organized the only Football v Homophobia event in America, according to Overton. Players from the coed soccer team FTSC Dixie Kicks donned event jerseys in their regular season indoor match against the Little Urban Achievers at the Fairfax Sportsplex.

Five minutes into the match, The Achievers slotted a shot by veteran goalkeeper Craig Grimm to draw first blood, but FTSC struck back late in the first half with a pair of goals from Becky Williams and Danny Schneider. FTSC’s lead was short-lived, however, as the Achievers reeled off eight unanswered goals to take the match 9-2.

“Even though we lost it was a great experience,” said team organizer Dennis Fish, who found out about Football v Homophobia through Facebook. “Being able to play and be open about who we are felt good.”

Sitting with his team afterward at Freddie’s Beach Bar, Fish admitted to being nervous before the match.

“We play on Saturday and it’s a day when there are often a lot of kids around. So I wasn’t sure if some of their parents, especially being in Virginia, would have a problem. But everyone was really great. Even the ref told us he liked the shirt and what we were doing. It was a great day.”

For more information on The Justin Campaign and Football v Homophobia, visit thejustincampaign.com. Those interested in playing soccer with Federal Triangles Soccer Club can find more information at federaltriangles.org.

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