In October of 2021, Adelaide United football player Josh Cavallo did something extraordinary. With a message posted on the Australian A-League Men club’s social media channels, the 21-year-old unwittingly changed the realm of football around the globe with one simple sentence:

“I am proud to publicly announce that I am gay.”

For six years, the young Australian football player had grappled with his identity and a sense of shame, fearing that he “would never be able to do what I love and be gay” and left feeling “numb.”

In these modern times, such anguish seems archaic and misplaced as global mores have undergone a radical transformation.

But the world of football has proven one of the last bastions for change.

“I can’t wipe the smile off my face,” Cavallo said.

“It’s been a long time coming, I haven’t felt this for more than six years in my life.

“It’s taken me to a new level. When I told Ross [Aloisi, United’s assistant coach] and Carl [Veart, United’s head coach] five weeks ago, they welcomed me and said: ‘Josh, you’re still the exact same person, we still love you for who you are. You’re a talented kid and we want what’s best for you.’

“And that really touched my heart. It was very heartwarming going forward. I was very confident when I told the team, and they welcomed me with their arms open. They said the exact same thing and ‘we’re proud of you and we’re glad that you’re comfortable in your own skin.’

“It was a very symbolic moment for me and I’m definitely going to remember it for the rest of my life.”

In coming out, Cavallo became the only current top-flight male professional footballer in the world to openly share his truth. Statistically, of course, it’s impossible that he’s alone; but in one remarkable act of honesty, the youngster from Melbourne’s southeast changed the narrative.

Both Cavallo and his club have been staggered by the massive global extent of the support that followed the announcement.

Clubs such as Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester United all sent messages of support, pride and thanks across their official social media channels, as did luminaries such as Robin van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gary Lineker. Even the global governing body FIFA responded.

“[The level of coverage] is a shock, but I wanted to make a statement with me coming out,” Cavallo said.

“I wanted to show that being gay in the normal world is normal, so why isn’t it allowed in football? Or why is it seen differently and perceived differently?

“I want to show to the kid that’s watching or has seen my video in the last few days that it is OK to be yourself. If you find that you are gay or you are just different — you come from a different cultural background or upbringing — that it’s OK to be different. You don’t have to ‘fit in.’

“Unfortunately, I lived six years of my life lying and trying to cover up, act and hide things from people when, really, getting the reaction I did yesterday, I didn’t need to do that. I’m so excited and I’m proud to announce that I’m gay. “It’s crazy when you’ve got idols like Antoine Griezmann, someone [who has] won a World Cup, sending you a message of support and saying he’s proud of you. That is phenomenal. It’s also outside of football, you have people like Sam Smith messaging you, Ricky Martin and Ellen DeGeneres saying congratulations.

“It’s huge and I really wasn’t expecting this response. Look, I want to change it, I want to make sure that we’re in 2021 now, I believe everyone deserves the right to feel comfortable to be their true authentic self and comfortable in their own skin. I want to pave the way for future generations so this is not a big deal in years to come.”

“We know that experiences of prejudice and harassment, and/or not being able to live openly can impact on the mental health of LGBTQ people,” Beau Newell, National Program Manager for Pride In Sport, said.

“Research shows that traditional sports are often seen as unwelcome spaces for people of all ages with diverse sexualities or genders, with many athletes being completely or partially in the closet while playing sport due to fear of intolerance and discrimination from other players, coaches and officials.

“This is a fear that is justified for many, but as many LGBTQ athletes who have recently come out over the past few years have demonstrated, it has not been their experience.

“Sport has an amazing opportunity to provide a safe and inclusive environment to all people, including people with diverse genders and sexualities.”

Ideally, Cavallo’s declaration should allow for a generational change in the supporter base and in the dressing room, if not management.

To eradicate discrimination based on gender and its mental health consequences.

To foster tolerance, understanding and acceptance amongst their peers, teammates and the wider social community.

“There were times when I was on the field and I was thinking about the conversation I was going to have after the game in the change room, how I’m going to dodge a question or how I can’t hang around after training because I don’t want to be questioned or put on the spot,” Cavallo said.

“It was a way of protecting myself. You isolate yourself. And that’s not healthy, it doesn’t affect you in a good way. That’s something I could no longer do and deal with myself. I wanted to live a life and be free to live a life that everyone else is living.

“I have never been happier than this moment in my life.”

“I would like to be known as Josh the footballer, not Josh the gay footballer,” Cavallo added. “It’s something I want to share and I feel comfortable sharing with the world because at the end of the day it makes me happy. I go to bed and I go to sleep happy.

“There was a long period in my life when it wasn’t like that. And now I’m getting to experience that, I’m kind of thinking why has it taken me so long to do this because I’ve been in a dark place for a long time when I didn’t need to be.”

Unfortunately, the world does not always follow the narrative of equality, tolerance and understanding. Cavallo was subsequently subjected to homophobic abuse during an A-League Men game in January of 2022, for which he had “no words” to explain his experience. The Adelaide United player came on as a second-half substitute during the Reds’ away game at Melbourne Victory on Saturday night and said afterwards that he had received abuse from the crowd at AAMI Park.

The following day, he revealed he had been subjected to abuse from the crowd and on Instagram, saying he was “not going to pretend that I didn’t see or hear the homophobic abuse” and that he would “never apologise for living my truth”.

A-League club Melbourne Victory has been fined $5,000 over homophobic abuse from fans directed at Adelaide United defender Josh Cavallo. Football Australia (FA) issued the sanction following the incident at the A-League Men’s game between the Victory and the Reds in Melbourne on January 8.

In issuing the penalty, the governing body said it had considered the Victory’s prompt denunciation of the behaviour and its commitment to banning “any individuals identified as having engaged in the conduct” from future matches.

It said the $5,000 would be used to “further invest in LGBTQ+ awareness and education initiatives in football”.

“I want to thank Josh for his courage in calling out this unacceptable behaviour and the club for its swift and strong response.

“In issuing the sanction, Football Australia is warning all participants and fans of the need to work together to ensure everyone can freely participate in our sport regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, ability or disability, cultural or religious background.”

The reverberations are slow, but they are happening.

In May of 2022, Blackpool footballer Jake Daniels, 17, became the first British professional male footballer to come out in more than 30 years. He said that Josh Cavallo was his inspiration.

The two have since forged a close relationship.

“My main advice to him is to embrace who you are, and just enjoy it. Mate, you’ve opened a new chapter, this is your new life, so go out there and live it. I’m very excited for the both of us. We’re only at the start of our career.”

“It is a work in progress and it’s not always going to be happy days. There are going to be days that are quite gloomy as well. But he’s prepared for that,” Cavallo added.

Daniels’ responded: “Since I’ve come out to my family, my club and my team-mates, that period of overthinking everything – and the stress it created – has gone. It was impacting my mental health. Now I am just confident and happy to be myself finally.

“I have been thinking for a long time about how I want to do it, when I want to do it. I know now is the time. I am ready to be myself, be free and be confident with it all.”

Justin Fashanu was the last active men’s professional footballer in the UK to come out during his playing career, featuring for clubs in England and Scotland after announcing in October 1990 that he was gay.

Daniels’ announcement was met with effusive support, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeting: “Thank you for your bravery Jake. It would have taken huge courage to come out and you will be an inspiration to many both on and off the pitch.”

The football world also reacted, with the Premier League tweeting “the footballing world is with you”, while Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all said they were “proud” of Daniels.

Trevor Birch, chief executive of the EFL, said: “We hope that this moment helps take us forward to a time where LGBTQ+ representation at all levels of the men’s professional game is the norm.”

Daniels said he had known he was gay since the age of five or six and that his girlfriends in school were “a massive cover-up”.

He said: “In school people even used to ask me: ‘Are you sure you aren’t gay?’ And I would reply, ‘no, I’m not’. I wasn’t ready and it was a struggle but I just don’t want to lie any more.”

He says the fact he scored four goals in a youth fixture the day after telling his mother and sister showed the “massive relief” he was feeling.

“Of course I am aware that there will be a reaction to this and some of it will be homophobic, maybe in a stadium and on social media,” Daniels added.

“It’s an easy thing for people to target. The way I see it is that I am playing football and they are shouting stuff at me, but they are paying to watch me play football and I am living my life and making money from it. So shout what you want, it’s not going to make a difference.”

Daniels – who has been with Blackpool since the age of seven and now has a professional contract – made his first-team debut earlier in May and said his announcement came at the end of what he said has been a “fantastic” season for him. “But off the pitch I’ve been hiding the real me and who I really am,” he told Blackpool’s website. “I’ve known my whole life that I’m gay, and I now feel that I’m ready to come out and be myself.

“It’s a step into the unknown being one of the first footballers in this country to reveal my sexuality, but I’ve been inspired by Josh Cavallo, Matt Morton and athletes from other sports, like Tom Daley, to have the courage and determination to drive change.”

Daniels said he had confided in youth-team players, who have supported and embraced his decision.

“I’ve hated lying my whole life and feeling the need to change to fit in,” he added. “I want to be a role model myself by doing this.

“There are people out there in the same space as me that may not feel comfortable revealing their sexuality. I just want to tell them that you don’t have to change who you are, or how you should be, just to fit in.”

Perhaps the presence of sport in the world really does have the power to enforce change, as Nelson Mandela opined:

In 2000, at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards, our Founding Patron, Nelson Mandela, declared that: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

 

Image via marca.com

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