Justin Fashanu's life ended in a dead end. On the night of May 2, 1998, the former professional footballer visited a sauna club in east London. He then got lost down a narrow street that led towards a huge brick wall. He discovered an abandoned garage, broke down the door and hanged himself. His suicide note said: “Being gay and a public figure is difficult.” Fashanu was 37 years old.
Eight years earlier, Justin Fashanu came out as gay. He was the first active professional footballer to take this step. The news was a sensation. And he unleashed a storm that enveloped the scorer and dragged him into the abyss.
Fashanu was considered a rising superstar and was eloquent and charismatic. But it was the 90s. Football and society were not yet ready for a player who loves men.
The big clubs no longer gave him any opportunity
After he came out, his life became dark. The authoritarian and homophobic Nottingham coach, Brian Clough, humiliated him. He became an enemy to the fans. His teammates refused to share a locker room with him.
The big clubs no longer gave him any opportunity. His career ended unsatisfactory and disappointing. Allegations later surfaced that he had raped a 17-year-old girl. In his suicide note, Fashanu denied the allegations. And he expressed his fear of not getting a fair trial as a black gay man.
Today, more than 25 years after his death, the tragedy of his short life has turned Justin Fashanu into an icon of the gay movement. For young gay footballers like Australian Josh Cavallo, he is a role model of courage and strength. Fashanu's fate reflected the racism, homophobia and coldness of the professional football system.
But Fashanu lived in a different era. Nowadays, you might think that sport and society are much more advanced. The stadiums are illuminated in the colors of the rainbow. “One Love” is written on Manuel Neuer's captain's armband. And the marketing departments of clubs and professional associations are outdoing each other on inclusion and diversity initiatives.
“I know some who haven't come out”
And yet: homosexuality is normalized in almost all areas of society. Just not in football. To date there is no active professional footballer in Germany who has made his homosexuality public. Last week, former national player David Odonkor spoke about the topic on the program “I'm a star, get me out of here!”: “I know some who haven't left.”
Why is that? And what does that say about the business of football?
The documentary “The Last Taboo” also explores this question (out February 13 on Amazon Prime). And this describes a contradiction: clubs and associations like to proclaim diversity to the outside world. But that is not reflected on the playing field.
Studies assume that between 80 and 120 players in German professional leagues are homosexual. Former Bundesliga referee Babak Rafati also says: You'd be surprised how many gay players there are. Rafati attempted suicide in 2011, but today he gives lectures on burnout prevention and says he is in contact with gay players. Three to four gay stars per team is “normal,” says Rafati. I wouldn't have imagined this either when he was still active in the football business.
A fear that has been nurtured over and over again over the years.
The documentary estimates: There are half a million professional soccer players around the world. If only one in twenty is gay, there must be 25,000 gay players. Only so far not a handful have come out. To be precise, there have been fewer than ten since the beginning of 2024 worldwide.
Amal Fashanu, Justin's niece, runs a foundation in her uncle's name that campaigns against homophobia and racism. She believes Fashanu's fate still represents the gay player's biggest fear: that the price of coming out is too high. Because the courage to reveal himself costs him his career.
A fear that has been fueled over the years when, from time to time, coaches or players have spoken out publicly about it. The German star Philipp Lahm, for example, also wrote in his book that there is little chance of coming out unscathed. Rudi Assauer once advised young gay players to look for another sport. Those affected continued to isolate themselves. But is this fear still justified today?
The most prominent former homosexual player also knows this fear. Almost exactly ten years ago, Thomas Hitzlsperger confessed in a newspaper interview: “I am gay.” Already during his active career she was wondering if he should come out of the closet.
Hitzlsperger seems relaxed and open-minded
When he played for Everton FC in England He played, the former national soccer player even lived with a man. However, making the relationship public was out of the question. His media lawyer warned: Coming out could unleash enormous pressure that cannot be controlled. So he waited until he finished his career.
To date, the 41-year-old is the only nationally known player to have taken this step.
Speaking via video call, Hitzlsperger appears relaxed and open-minded, as always. The Munich native says: An “extreme case” like that of Justin Fashanu would probably not happen again today, he is sure of that.
Because in the locker room, in the stands and in the press people are much more tolerant than in the nineties. Therefore, Hitzlsperger finds it “surprising” that no other player in Germany acknowledged his sexuality in the years after he came out of the closet.
Even then it received predominantly positive reactions. The British magazine The Sun, whose reporters mercilessly scrutinized Fashanu's private life, also congratulated the former Aston Villa professional for his bravery. And he celebrated the star with the powerful shot and the subsequent nickname “Hitz the hammer” as a “winner” on the front page.
Although homophobic comments certainly existed. His former colleague Jens Lehmann said in an interview that he would have felt strange in the shower if he had known at the time about Hitzlsperger's sexuality.
The player has to go out himself.
In recent years, the former player has repeatedly spoken about the subject. Because he wants to remove fears and give courage. But his fight to remove the taboos seems quite lonely. Sometimes it seems as if he too does not understand why no one in Germany has followed his example. He says that he is not in contact with other gay players. He is happy to give advice, but he does not want to impose anything or impose himself on anyone.
Hitzlsperger believes that clubs, associations, fans and the football system as a whole are ready to accept gay players. But the player himself has to give the start, “this last step.” Maybe that's the point.
In the end, it is not enough to accept; perhaps active support would make sense. There are no contact points in clubs and no real efforts to create safe spaces for gay players to meet. This would probably be the only way it would be possible for a group to come out, which many see as the only way to really change anything. Many people simply don't know each other.
Svenja Huth, national player and captain of VfL Wolfsburg, sees the problem in the outdated mentality of men's football. Unlike women's football, men still believe that homosexuality represents softness and weakness. Hitzlsperger partly agrees: “In some places something like this still exists, but it is becoming less common.”
“If you can't be yourself, you can't be happy.”
He wants to continue defending this different type of football and use his story to help people psychologically consumed by the conflict between self-denial and the need for liberation.
“If you can't be yourself, you can't be happy,” says Matt Morton, a gay player and coach at Thetford Town. Morton is an influential voice when it comes to LGBT and football in England. He talks about how “incredibly painful” it is to deny yourself. Hiding your true self leads to “huge psychological problems.” Morton says: He is in contact with relatives of people who have taken their lives because of this. “The more we talk about it, the more lives we save.”
Thomas Hitzlsperger also had to hide part of his personality for a long time. But that did not plunge him into an existential crisis. He was pensive and rarely performed well. And the clubs changed too quickly. So, it would have been even better if he had had the courage to come out sooner? “Part of me would have liked to come out during my playing career,” says Hitzlsperger.
Czech international: “I am gay”
While the taboo is not going away in Germany, other leagues appear to be moving forward. Young talent Jake Daniels came out in England last year at the age of 17.
He didn't want to live with a “lie,” said the striker for third-division FC Blackpool's youth team. Now he can be himself. Prince William, Gary Lineker and Jack Grealish praised the teenager for his decision. And Adidas immediately offered him a sponsorship contract.
Czech international Jakub Jankto was the first last February European National player who announced on social networks: “I am gay.” At age 22 he had a relationship with a woman and had a son. At the age of twenty-something he became aware of his homosexuality. At 27 years old he made it public.
A few days later, Jankto came on as a substitute in his then club Sparta Prague's 3-0 victory against FK Jablonec. The reaction of the fans was awaited with concern. But Jankto received the curve with the usual applause. And that was the end of the case.
Jankto is playing now Italian First division side Cagliari Calcio see his departure as a liberation. He now he just wants to concentrate on the sport.
Donovan said he was proud of the statement.
The San Diego Loyal showed that in the United States solidarity with a gay teammate sometimes even surpasses sporting success. Gay star Collin Martin plays for the second division team and the team is coached by Landon Donovan, the former attacker FC Bayern. After allegedly homophobic insults against Martín, the team left the field as a unit despite leading 3-1.
The Club lost its last chance to reach the play-offs. Donovan said he was proud of the statement. And Martín thanked his colleagues for a “truly moving gesture.” Such an action seems difficult to imagine, at least in the near future, in a German professional league.