In 2011 I asked a tennis player I managed to go for hitting practice with a German player. I’d met the German girl at a number of tournaments over the years and found her quite the character once she came out of her shell. Sharing stories of Cologne and North Rhine Westphalia (from where she hails) we’d gotten on well enough so that I was sure she’d oblige our player in her time of need. Some time later that day I asked what had happened, our Russian diva gave me what she figured was a “funny” account of the call, mimicking Sara’s voice and then gossiping in the time honoured fashion of female tennis players. I’d expected better and reprimanded my charge for her insensitivity. The pro tour is lonely enough without the active ignorant behaviour of fellow pros.
Two years before that I’d watched this same diva record a shock win over a promising naturalised Israeli player. The Israeli caught me a little after for a chat about work and as the Moscow May rain fell, told me of losing to “a man” a couple of months earlier. I asked her who she was talking about and she named Sara, the same girl I’d spoken with and admired when she battled to a quarter final win at a tournament our company organised in Croatia. I had known that Sara was born a hermaphrodite and also (from the Tournament Referee in Sibenik) that she had undergone surgery and was proven to be fully female. The sensationalist media (Daily Mail take a bow) made it an issue, though if it ended there all would at least be well. Instead a far more insidious element developed. Players refused to partner her in doubles, I was told it was due to the fear of being shunned themselves by one girl who did make the effort. At a tournament in Stuttgart a fellow German pro player covered her mouth and told me “People like that shouldn’t be allowed into sport.” I blinked with surprise as the same woman was there with her long term female partner. I don’t know if it was hypocrisy or irony that passed her by, or just a sense of humanity.
But what on earth has this to do with football? Especially Russian football! Well, a lot actually. During the New Year holidays a bunch of lads went off on a holiday to warmer climes and behaved as lads do, messing about and acting the eejit. Posing for photos and snapped in a foam bath together sent the sports media into a frenzy. Were Korkorin and Mamaev lovers? Who was taking the photos? Why would they destroy their careers like this? What should have been a local non-story suddenly became a full-blown issue as gay media outlets jumped on the photos with delight and the International media tried as best they could to make something from nothing. Of course the usual mouthpieces from Russian ultra fan groups were rolled out to both defend the players, also to raise threats against anyone who would be gay and playing football. It was both distasteful and insulting, but it passed by.
But why did this pop back into my mind? Two things. The first, it occurred at the same time as the Christopher Samba cash hunt to QPR – he just recently landed back at Anzhi with a drop in wages. At the time of his move the English media fell back on the blather from the failed 2018 World Cup bid – Russia was a haven of racists, poor Samba was hounded out. This all despite the man himself praising local fans and stating his love for the club and that he would return one day, one day being a few months later. And as Samba returned, Kokorin landed for €19million from Dynamo to fan the flames of an Anzhi title push in 2013-14. The second were events during a St. Petersburg Gay Pride celebration a couple of weeks ago.
The celebration coincided with the passing into law of a ban on homosexual propaganda and blasphemy, as well as some very hot weather. Zenit Ultras accompanied religious and conservatives fanatics, with the local police doing a fair job in separating the sides. Ultras attacked some of the celebrants and police, cornering one unfortunate and kicking him to the head as he lay helpless, the man was rescued by police who arrested the Ultras, as well as other protestors and members of the celebration who reacted to violence with violence. I was reading reports of the attacks in one of the English language dailies as I waited to meet an agent friend who I needed to run some ideas by.
He arrived at the Starbucks in Shukino, ordered and sat down. Looking at my paper he said, “Animals, acting like animals. That’s why there won’t be any gay players, the media would destroy them.” I knew he was speaking from actual experience as one of his players had been subject of a muckraking hack three years ago. The player, a successful Premier Leaguer, lives with his boyfriend and in the dozen or so times in the last 5 years that we’ve socialised, has been very relaxed, confident yet dead set at becoming a martyr to a cause he sees no sense in embracing. He himself says “It’d be easier if I was an alcoholic, or narkoman (drug addict) or liked sex with animals, but gay…who’d sign me?” The most reliable and honest in the sports media know and don’t care, he does what he’s paid for on the pitch, lives a stable lifestyle and is like any other player, a professional who just wants to play football. I never asked if he knew of others, I don’t care, nor do the vast, vast majority of football supporters. Nor the vast majority of people in Russia, they’re too busy enjoying lip synching tv concerts and trying to survive until the next payday. But I did ask about other players, how they’d react. His agent said that some know and that they don’t care. He’d never had a negative reaction. Which made me wonder why the fear of coming out in his case.
Then again, I know why. In sports, as in any type of show business, perception and image are key and the most profitable. Would Ricky Martin have become the world famous Latin hip shaker had he been known as gay from his “Livin’ la vida loca” days instead of having a made up romance with a Mexican tv host, would he have been as big a star as he was? In my opinion, no. Why lose the main purchasers of your product, young females, when you can kick on for a few years until your star is on the wane or you retire. It’s no different in Russia. One singer was advised by his handlers to “settle down” with a surgically re-aligned tv hostess as his career was still worth something. The funny thing is that at the same time a female sex symbol singer concocted a relationship so that she could legitimately conceive and give birth, with the most intricate and outlandish details developed for the media. Why? As the Anglo-Irish creatures would say – it’s all about the “moolah”. Break from the norm and you might not get your just rewards, and when football, the great religion of our time, is all about normality and group think, daring to break the mould might not end up in a contract. At least that fear remains. It’s not homophobia that is the biggest block to footballers being able to live their lives, loss of money is the biggest scare of all.