On Sunday afternoon, legendary Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas tweeted saying, "I hope you respect me: I'm gay." Shortly afterwards, his former teammate Carles Puyol replied saying, "The time has come to tell our story, Iker."
This seemed as though it could be a monumental moment for LGBT+ representation in sport. A World Cup winning duo, one captain of the team, the other captain of the greatest club team of the modern age, coming out as gay in the current footballing climate? This was an emotional moment for members of the LGBT+ community, as evidenced by the outpouring of emotion immediately after Casillas' tweet was sent.
Soon, Casillas' tweet was gone - as was Carles Puyol's.
The ensuing fallout hardly saw either Casillas or Puyol cover themselves in glory - and the incident as a whole has understandably caused hurt to the LGBT+ community, and set the Pride movement within football back unnecessarily in the name of a foolish joke.
Casillas and Puyol prove football has a long way to go
I, as I'm sure many do, remember the times in school when classmates would insult each other by insinuating another was "gay" or that something that they disapproved of was "gay".
They weren't necessarily, or always, intended as homophobic comments, but words carry meaning. The insinuation behind such comments was that to be "gay" was to be lesser, or something to be ashamed of - something worthy of being mocked for.
Thankfully, people grow and, for the most part, you don't encounter such comments in the adult world. It seems crazy to explain such juvenile instances in the context of modern professional football but, sadly, the actions of Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol necessitate it.
These are jokes that are unacceptable to make in the private company of friends, regardless of sexual orientation - let alone to an audience of millions of social media followers and football fans the world over.
Casillas would apologise for his remarks by claiming he was "hacked" - after regaining control of his account remarkably quickly, with seemingly no other issues caused to his account. Forgive my doubt, but I feel there's more at play here.
Cuenta hackeada. Por suerte todo en orden. Disculpas a todos mis followers. Y por supuesto, más disculpas a la comunidad LGTB. 🙏
— Iker Casillas (@IkerCasillas) October 9, 2022
Puyol, at least, admitted that he had made a "foolish" joke, while both were apologetic to the LGBT+ community.
Me he equivocado. Perdón por una broma torpe sin ninguna mala intención y absolutamente fuera de lugar. Entiendo que puede haber herido sensibilidades. Todo mi respeto y apoyo a la comunidad LGTBIQA+
— Carles Puyol (@Carles5puyol) October 9, 2022
It's around a year now since Josh Cavallo became the first active top level male footballer to come out as gay. The reaction then was positive, but it remains astonishing to me that, the world over, we had to wait so long for a top level professional male athlete in the world's most popular sport to feel comfortable expressing their identity.
As LGBT+ people reporting on men's football can tell you, representation is hard to come by. That's why Casillas and Puyol initially felt so monumental.
The stature of the players involved shouldn't matter - it doesn't, this is a fundamentally human issue, detached from the calibre of anyone in the game. But what made this feel significant was that now there would be an active voice at the top of the game. Two of the very best, most respected players of their generation, seemingly a part of an underrepresented community.
For it to come out as the result of a "joke" or "hacking" is bitterly disappointing.
Let's give Casillas the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was hacked. Maybe this was the only thing that the hackers chose to Tweet, or to change on his account, before peacefully handing back control to the Spanish goalkeeper. Maybe.
If so, why was Puyol so speedy in his response? He has since apologised for his joke, but it was dreadfully misjudged, ill-informed, and irresponsible. We've established that such jokes simply aren't funny - is being gay really the butt of a joke in 2022? - but aside from that, Puyol (and Casillas) should understand that their stature in the world game gives their words meaning. It gives them power others don't have. If these jokes aren't acceptable or advisable on a small scale, they certainly shouldn't be on this scale.
And, when you take into account the climate of world football, and the tiptoeing baby steps towards making the game the welcoming space LGBT+ players and fans deserve...well, this whole incident is frankly pathetic.
Yes, we’re on top of the league (for now). More importantly, social media today still shows how far from reality we are. Whether Casillas was hacked or not: I see too many posts that are far off. Waiting for the day this wouldn’t be news, ‘cause actually that’s the problem here. pic.twitter.com/O8fdNBiLJI
— Marten de Roon (@Dirono) October 9, 2022
Spain has the highest non-heterosexual population in Europe, according to a 2021 study. The overwhelming likelihood is that Casillas, or Puyol, or both, have shared a dressing room with a closeted gay or bisexual player. Put yourself in the shoes of those people for a moment - would this incident, the treatment of it as a "joke", and the tirade of homophobic abuse, trolling, and meme-making that it invited, encourage you that football has changed and that it is a safe space for you to publicly reveal your identity?
I'd hazard a guess not.
Casillas seemingly lost almost 3 million followers after his initial tweet - hardly the most encouraging image for any gay footballers grappling with their identity in the modern game.
The fact that this has all happened just over a month from the World Cup in Qatar is yet another issue. The issues surrounding holding the tournament in Qatar are well documented, but let's recap the facts surrounding LGBT+ rights in the country:
- Sex between men is illegal
- Sex between women is illegal
- Sex between men is punishable by the death penalty, though there is limited evidence of this ever being enforced
When you have the World Cup going to places like these, and the FIFA president who awarded the tournament to Qatar advising LGBT+ fans to refrain from sexual activities (yes, Sepp Blatter really said that), you're in a dark period for fans of the sport who identify as part of the community.
I'm not comparing tweets from two ex-footballers to legitimate oppression in Qatar. That's not what I'm doing here. Casillas and Puyol's comments were either unfortunate effects of hacking, or horrendously ill-advised "jokes". That does not compare to a legal system which outlaws the very identities of those within the LGBT+ community.
But these things don't happen in a vacuum. At a time when acceptance of queer people is slowly moving forward, football is at a crossroads. It is the world's most popular game, and yet the men's game has nothing substantial to show for its attempts to make the community feel welcome.
Sure, Harry Kane will wear a rainbow armband at the World Cup. Sure, we'll have the rainbow laces for a round of Premier League games every year. We get the occasional instance of a genuinely active and progressive move being made, such as Leeds' Luke Ayling attending the city's Pride festival earlier this year.
But as long as the World Cup is going to places like Qatar, and so many react in the crass manner in which they did to Sunday's tweets from Casillas and Puyol, we are going nowhere fast.
I despair for any footballer grappling with their identity who has suffered a set back and crisis of confidence as a result of these events. I despair for my fellow fans from the LGBT+ community who will feel hurt by the lack of care and respect shown by Casillas, Puyol, and so many fans. I despair for those, like me, wondering if we've made any progress at all.
It seems harmless. You can say "it's just a Tweet", and point out that no active harm was done. Sure, that's true. They were just Tweets. I'm not calling Casillas or Puyol homophobic, and I don't believe their intention was to hurt LGBT+ fans.
The truth is, that doesn't matter. It did hurt them, and has set the conversation around this issue backwards. As said previously, these things don't happen in a vacuum. They are, in the end, just Tweets - but they were sent to a combined audience of over 22 million people, fans of a sport which is struggling to show any meaningful moves to support a minority community, ahead of the biggest tournament in the sport taking place in a country which actively represses said community.
That's why this matters so much. That's why it has hurt so many people. That's why we must learn, and do better.