LGBTQ+ representation and discrimination in sport, specifically soccer, is one of the hot-button issues in sport right now — something I touched on in my last article for this newspaper. In fact, writing that piece, and the research I did in the process, piqued my interest so much that I decided I wanted to get a more expert opinion — to hear the story of being LGBTQ+ and involved in the sport.
It is under this guise that I sit down on a Wednesday afternoon with Oli Riordan — former Auditor of Trinity’s Q-Soc and the star striker for the Dublin Devils — Ireland’s oldest gay football team.
Riordan has a longstanding association with the sport of soccer – having grown up in the shadow of London’s Wembley Stadium, with a host of cousins and uncles who all played semi-professional or professional soccer; “I played football from the earliest age I could,” he confesses. However, he tells me that this involved playing for schoolboy teams and other so-called ‘straight teams’ — it wasn’t until he moved to Dublin for university that he became interested in playing for a Gay team.
“I tried out for the Trinity team but didn’t get a callback so I googled ‘Dublin football’ and was looking through the different teams, and the one that stuck out for me was the LGBT football team — I only came out when I came to Dublin, so this was a big deal for me. It was a very different experience.”
The team of which he speaks is obviously the Devils. Ireland’s first gay football team, they were founded around 11 years ago by a man named Mark O’Donovan who, whilst working in the UK, had played in the country’s gay football league. When he returned to Dublin, upon finding that there was no gay football team in Ireland, he decided to found his own — and hence the Devils were born.
In fact, Riordan tells me, if you happen to be in the George and find yourself staring at the walls, you can still find posters from when the team was founded, with the simple strapline, ‘are you gay, do you want to play football?’.
It started out very casually, with the team just meeting up for a kickabout, but competition grew out of that. The team now has a 5-aside and 11-aside variation, and at its peak — around 5 years ago — they had a virtually professional first XI; “That was Irish men who couldn’t come out when they were playing professionally, who decided to do so after retirement,” Oli explains, “we were absolutely dominating. But fitness drops off and people retire.” Nowadays the team is more focused on being a beacon for the community, “We’ve got the Gay Games coming up in Paris, where we’ll be representing Team Ireland, which is incredibly exciting.”
A more relaxed attitude seems to be the approach at the moment for the Devils. When Riordan first began playing, around 3 years ago, the level of training was incredibly intense. “We used to do two training nights a week – proper training. Our manager at the time had coached county Gaelic Football, so he was focused on fitness.
We would do an hour of running, and then half an hour of training and end with a half hour game — and in between all of that we’d have to do push-ups and sit-ups. I was sick a number of times!” Whereas now, the team seems to have scaled it back a bit – the 5-aside games serve as training for the 11-aside matches – although Oli says that being selected for the 11-aside games necessitates playing in the smaller sided games.
The Devils are no longer the only gay team in the country — O’Donovan, having returned to his native Cork, set up the Cork Rebels — and the two teams engaged in the first Cork-Dublin derby a few months ago, a 1-1 draw that Riordan – entirely unbiasedly – tells me the Rebels were lucky to escape with.
However, there is no concerted effort to replicate what O’Donovan experienced in the UK, with no plans for a gay league in Ireland. “We’d love it if cities wanted to have their own team, but we’re absolutely fine playing against ‘straight’ teams.” In fact, integration seems to be the priority over separation — when people ask why there needs to be a gay team in Ireland, Riordan explains to them that they’d love to have a league where every team was just a team with some straight members and some queer members, but that, at the moment, “queer players don’t feel comfortable coming out and being themselves in their teams.
If it gets to the point where everyone is comfortable playing for their team and being out, then we’ll say ‘ok, we’re just a football team’. Because we are just a football team, albeit one that is very conscious of its LGBT members.” The end goal, exclaims Riordan, is to have no need for a gay team, and to have a league where everyone is comfortable being LGBTQ+ in their own teams.
At this point, my interest in the issues that the wider footballing community seems to have with the LGBTQ+ community takes a hold of me, and I ask Riordan for his opinion, as a bi-sexual footballer, as to why, since Robbie Rogers’ coming out in 2013, we haven’t seen another gay professional footballer anywhere in the world.
For him, the answer is simple: “the teams and the professional organisations don’t do enough. They’re a shambles. Every time they are questioned about it, their answer seems to be, ‘well we don’t have any gay players, so we don’t have to worry about it.’ Which is a lie — journalists have said that they know gay footballers who feel they can’t come out. The level of support is lacking — if you have potentially hundreds of queer players who aren’t able to come out because their team and the organisations themselves are saying that they don’t want gay players because gay people don’t play football.”
Riordan points to high profile cases of the lack of support — noting that even the Irish team national manager Martin O’Neill, in a country which Oli proudly declares has some of the most support for the LGBTQ+ community, has been found guilty of homophobic slurs in 2016. “There’s going to be kids growing up listening to the manager of their national team saying that he doesn’t want his players playing like gays — it’s hugely damaging.
It’s not just going to stop them from playing football, it’s going to stop them from wanting to come out.” Such cases, he argues, set a precedent for the way the rest of the game is run — if the FAI, or its equivalent bodies overseas, fail to come down hard on homophobic abuse, then the teams under its jurisdiction feel that they can act the same way. If we’re going to see an environment in the future where players and coaches feel comfortable coming out in professional football, then the sport’s governing bodies have to lead by example.
However, it’s not just a long-term, top-down solution that Riordan thinks could revolutionise the relationship between the two communities. What football is missing, he claims, is a high-profile gay player, someone of the ilk of Messi or Neymar, to silence those critics, especially the fans, who don’t believe that being gay and being good at football are compatible. “Those two things [ability and sexual identity] do work together, in terms of how people view it — not, of course, in terms of how good you are as a player. If someone like Messi or Ronaldo came out, it would change things overnight… because people couldn’t exactly say that they’re not very good.”
However, every time Riordan discusses the potential of players coming out at any level of football, it is with the caveat that the player would need to be guaranteed of the support of his team, the reality being that football has a very troubled history with the few openly gay players the game has had. The most notable story is that of Justin Fashanu (which I touched on in my last article), the ex-Wimbledon player who, after coming out in the 1990s, tragically took his own life as a direct result of the homophobic abuse he suffered.
And, unfortunately, whilst soccer has made some progress in the last two-and-a-half decades, Riordan informs me that he still witnesses homophobia both as a fan and as a player. In fact, I mention to him that, as a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter (Brighton being the LGBTQ+ capital of the UK), I can’t remember the last game I attended where I didn’t overhear some form of homophobic abuse directed at Brighton fans.
It seems that it is hard to know which is the cart and which is the horse in the modern game: do fans, coaches and so on feel that they can get away with homophobic abuse because such comments are not seemingly aimed at anyone in particular, in the way that racist comments about players so clearly are; or rather would having openly gay players merely intensify the abuse, but in a way that is perhaps more targetable for footballing authorities?
Sadly, Riordan and his Devils teammates do sometimes suffer homophobic abuse — although, he tells me with a rueful smile, given the size of some of the players on the Devils team, that abuse is usually very short-lived. Moreover, he says that in most cases it is simply a lashing out from an opposition player frustrated with the way the game is going, often abusing a player in reaction to a goal or a foul conceded and what’s more, the player’s teammates are usually fast to highlight how inappropriate that behavior is. “Often their own captain will pull them aside and tell them that’s not on — the captain or the coach of the other team will come over and explain that they’ve had a word with him, or the player will come over and apologise.”
However, despite the sometimes deeply unpleasant incidents whilst playing for a gay team, it is clear that Riordan has never considered quitting the Devils, and that, in fact, he has enormous pride in his identity being tied up with the team. “It’s changing people’s ideas of gay footballers, or just queer people who are interested in football.”
He speaks with great enthusiasm about the Devils leading Team Ireland’s hopes at August’s Gay Games — the team have made the soccer final on each of the last 5 occasions, but unfortunately are yet to win — with the team scheduled for a photo-shoot with GCN in the coming weeks to promote the tournament. As the interview draws to a close, one thing is clear to me from the last half-hour of conversation – if soccer is to finally overcome its issues with homophobia, and we do finally see players comfortable enough to come out of the closet, it will need people like Oli Riordan at the forefront, leading the charge.