The Gay Footballer: The Problem with Russia and the 2018 World Cup


By Adam McCabe

I was sitting in the Thompson Memorial Library, gazing into “The Great Window”, as I needed a mental break from my exam studies. “The Great Window”, an enormous stained-glass window, is a landmark of Vassar College, and frequently serves as the stomping ground for wandering minds. It was dead silent on this day, December 2nd, 2010 as students filled the library stressing over their mid-term exams. I don’t recall what I was daydreaming about or even what exam I was studying for, but this day was significant for me because it was the day that I found out that I would not be attending the 2018 World Cup. I would not be attending as athlete, as a part of a coaching staff, as a fan, and most definitely as a spectator.

As my phone buzzed, I looked down at the notification. It was from ESPN, and the headline read “World Cup Host Country Announced”. I frantically shuffled my study materials and opened my laptop, excited to begin planning for my future summer trip. But as I read the ESPN article and double checked the information in The New York Times and The Washington Post, my excitement dissipated.  As we all know now, and as I found out that afternoon, Russia had won the FIFA’s bid and the right to host the 2018 World Cup. 

For over 19 years of my life, I hid my true identity. When the news broke about the World Cup host country, I was a closeted athlete playing soccer for Vassar College. My immediate reaction to this information was that I could not “come out of the closet” until after 2018. I could not risk my life in a country that has little respect for the LGBTQ community just to attend some soccer matches. I even thought to myself that while this was the World Cup I had my mind set on attending, unfortunately this would just have to be a World Cup I would miss. I thought there was no way I can be openly gay and feel safe attending a World Cup in Russia (as a player, spectator, or coach). Instead of studying for my exams, I began running through different scenarios of how I could attend the 2018 World Cup and do so confidently and safely. I came up with nothing. And in 2015, five years after I had decided not to attend the 2018 World Cup in Russia, I came out to the world and told my story. It was the punctuation on my decision.

I have been fortunate to travel the world, experience new people, and live in different cultures all through my soccer playing career. When I left the United States at 19 years old I could never have dreamed of what would come for my life. Whether it was in England, Thailand, Slovakia, or any of the other countries that I played in, one thing rang true. I never felt comfortable enough to “come out” to my teammates. No matter the country, I lived a double life where soccer came second and hiding my true identity came first. When I look back at my experience, I see a soccer player who was constantly distracted and afraid to be himself. I see a soccer player who was torn inside and felt all alone. In a time where I should have been the happiest of my life, I could not enjoy these experiences and memories due to my internal conflicts. While my battle with my sexual identity negatively affected my football performance and was ultimately one of the factors that made me take a break from the game, I can honestly say that throughout those years I never felt fearful for my life. However, I cannot say I would feel the same way if I was participating in the 2018 World Cup.

As the World Cup approaches, I still have a distaste in my mouth for the event. I cannot even begin to imagine how I would feel if I were representing my country at the World Cup this summer. With everything that has happened to people of the LGBTQ community in Russia, even as an athlete attending the World Cup, I would be afraid for my life. I would not be able to focus on soccer because at every corner, at every alley, I would feel like my life is in danger. In a country where LGBTQ lives are secondary, it seems almost impossible for an openly gay or closeted soccer player to exist in this environment and to play to their best abilities. Even if I was a closeted soccer player, I would feel weary of my safety there. To think that being your true self could ultimately lead to punishments, torture, or even death is quite frightening. I know my senses would constantly be on guard and these distractions would severely be hinder my athletic performance. 

 When I was playing abroad, I remember that I judged and critiqued every comment, action, and interaction that I had. I made sure that every answer I gave, joke I told, and outfit I wore would lead my team mates to think that I was NOT a homosexual. I was hiding the biggest secret of my life and I wasn’t going to do anything that gave my teammates the slightest suspicion that I was gay. It took so much effort and drained me emotionally as I plotted and planned of how best to hide my identity.

When this was going on my attention and focus should have been on the game. I believe that any closeted soccer players who will be playing in the World Cup will be going through this same struggle. The current political situation and past treatment of the LGBTQ community in Russia will ultimately leave closeted athletes legitimately frightened to be outed. And to think, we, the media, are waiting for top soccer players to “come out” in the world’s most competitive leagues. Yet, we force these individual to play in countries where their lives, mental health, and careers are in jeopardy. It ends up creating a reverse effect, where these athletes shove their identities and emotions deeper and deeper into hiding and we continue to derail the inclusivity of soccer.

Even as a fan, I am still discouraged and fearful of attending the World Cup in Russia. When I examine my feelings and experiences as an LGBTQ fan in the United States, I have mixed emotions. On one hand I still hear the words faggot, queer, and puto used loosely, as it has become a part of the sporting vernacular. On the other hand, I am a part of an LGBTQ supporters group and I never feel frightful or judged waving my pride flag at soccer games. Thus, it is a great reminder that although we’ve made tons of progress for inclusion in this sport there still a way to go.

I don’t envision a 2018 World Cup in which LGBTQ fans feel safe, can express their love for the game, and do so being out and proud. Instead LGBTQ fans will have to live that same life I did as a professional footballer, hiding in plain sight. Hiding is a big request for an LGBTQ fan to do to watch soccer at the biggest event in the world and enjoy the game they love. I know personally I would have a hard time going to the World Cup in Russia and feel safe doing so. I would not be able to truly enjoy my experience and all that comes with the World Cup. The effort and internal struggle to “blend in” is a major turn off and further deters the LGBTQ community from attending this event.

It’s a bit of an oxymoron, when you examine that the World Cup will be played in June in Russia. June is known as Pride Month across the globe. While millions of people from the LGBTQ community and their allies will be celebrating, a major event will be watched by millions in a country where LGBTQ individuals are killed, tortured, and held captive.

This makes me think back to a time in my playing career where I was most frightened and insecure about my sexuality. My teammates were making fun of the team kitman in the dressing room before our pre- game warm up. They were calling the kitman a “puff”, a “fairy”, and saying how they would be afraid to change in front of him. I remember shrinking into the corner of the room, head down, face burning out of anger and fear. While my teammates were not calling me these names and saying these horrible things about me, they were doing so indirectly. They were talking about me, my community, and people like me. As we ask these closeted soccer players and fans to attend the World Cup in Russia, we are ignoring how important and serious the social issues are in Russia. We are forcing closeted athletes to look in the mirror, combat and face their biggest fears, and ignore the consequences of representing each of our countries. We ask them to continue to hide and lie because in this country your true identity and true self could get you hurt.

It really is a shame that a country so beautiful and filled with such footballing culture is tainted with such social/cultural issues. I believe the World Cup in Russia will be breathtaking. Unfortunately, this time, the World Cup is not for me. My health, my safety, and my life are much more important than attending a World Cup. I cannot see myself enjoying a World Cup, where I must walk the streets continuously checking my shoulder. Fans across the world will flock to soccer’s biggest stage, but unfortunately it will be lacking the representation of the LGBTQ community.

I challenge FIFA and other soccer governing bodies to think deeply when selecting future tournament host venues. Soccer is the best sport in the world, because it is the sport for everybody.  It is a sport includes people from all walks of life. Let’s remember to include all these people for future competitions too.

Adam McCabe is a professional soccer player who has played for clubs in England, Slovakia, Thailand, and the United States. You can find him on Twitter @McCabenater



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