Ligue 1’s LGBTQ+ campaign washed out by absent players and tone-deaf managers | Ligue 1

“It’s catastrophic,” bemoaned the Brest manager, Eric Roy, after his team’s slender win over Auxerre. “It’s very good that the league is getting involved, but I think it needs to deal with football first of all.” The former midfielder was criticising the timing of last weekend’s anti-homophobia campaign in France’s top two divisions, which involved managers and captains wearing rainbow-coloured armbands and the numbers on the back of players’ shirts featuring the same motif. “We’re clearly seeing that it’s causing a problem for some players. Everyone has their opinions; personally it’s not a problem for me.”

“Don’t do it in the final four games, when clubs’ survival is at stake,” Roy went on, ostensibly unaware that last week’s match day was chosen because 17 May is International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Evidently, the founders should have taken the ramifications on future Ligue 1 relegation battles into consideration before choosing that day – marking the World Health Organization’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder – to draw attention to violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people.

Specifically, Roy was frustrated that his team’s relegation battle rivals Nantes were able to face a Toulouse side who were without a group of players. His remarks, somewhat puzzling given his team had gone five points clear of the drop zone with three games to go, were echoed by the club director Grégory Lorenzi: “When you want to do these kinds of things, don’t do it when there are key games, it can distort things.”

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The Rennes manager, Bruno Génésio, also expressed doubts about the campaign: “We’re against all forms of discrimination, but I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a match day against homophobia. I think we’re all aware of it, and there’s no need to display it all the time.”

Ligue 1 managers have form for tone-deaf statements but complaining about the timing of an anti-homophobia campaign may be a new low. Roy would later apologise and state that he wore the rainbow armband “with pride”, but his initial comments did reveal a feeling among some within French football that the campaign was an inconvenient afterthought.

The catalyst for a weekend of controversy were reports that several Toulouse players intended to sit out the home match against Nantes, the team they had beaten in the Coupe de France final a couple of weeks beforehand. Of the three eventually left out of the match-day squad, Zakaria Aboukhlal was the only player to comment publicly on the move, explaining in a statement on social media that although he holds “the highest regard for every individual”, he felt he was “not the most suitable person to participate in this campaign” because of his personal beliefs. The match itself – which, adding to the pre-match chaos, had a delayed kick-off because of suspicious packages in the away end – ended goalless.

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Toulouse later confirmed that several players had been sidelined over their “disagreement” with the campaign but that the club were “respectful” of their individual choices. The Nantes striker Mostafa Mohamed also sat out the match over his refusal to wear the rainbow flag-themed shirt. Les Canaris later announced that they would be fining the Galatasaray loanee, with the sum going to a charity, SOS Homophobie.

Brest’s manager, Eric Roy, wearing a rainbow armband
Brest manager Eric Roy said he wore his rainbow armband ‘with pride’, but his prior comments caused controversy. Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

The French players’ union, the UNFP, expressed “surprise” at the controversy, while also explaining that it had no role interfering in individuals’ private beliefs. The union, all the while reiterating its commitment in the fight against homophobia, has also lamented the absence of a separate match day aimed at raising awareness of harassment in professional football.

It’s not the first time that the campaign – in place since 2019 – has involved some pushback from those on the pitch. Idrissa Gueye, then at Paris Saint-Germain, skipped his team’s match on the same match day last year. The official reason given was that he had gastroenteritis – the midfielder, now at Everton, did not speak publicly about the incident.

Given that several captains did not wear the rainbow-coloured armband in the first year it was introduced, major steps forward have undoubtedly been made given the vast majority of players and managers in Ligue 1 had no issue with taking part last weekend. As pointed out by the Ligue de Football Professionel (LFP), the governing body, only a handful of players across French football’s top two divisions did not take part, out of 756 named in match-day squads.

Some clubs fully embraced the initiative – Montpellier, for example, released a limited edition shirt, with the team’s badge stylised in rainbow colours. Still, the campaign’s mixed response has provoked reaction from beyond French football. The minister for sports, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra – who wore a rainbow jumper at the World Cup in Qatar – has called on clubs to discipline any players who refused to be involved.

Oudéa-Castéra later announced that automatic stadium bans would be introduced for discriminatory comments made at matches, as part of a wider plan to combat homophobia. The French government’s spokesperson, Olivier Véran, called the players’ refusal “rubbish” and “anachronistic”. He said: “Homophobia isn’t an opinion, it’s a crime.”

One of the merits of the LFP’s campaign is its visibility – by comparison, the Rainbow Laces campaign in England is optional, although there is ostensibly less public pushback from players. Both campaigns are, for the most part, accepted by clubs, although the fact remains that only one professional player currently active in men’s football in either country has publicly come out.

Yoann Lemaire, a former amateur player who became the first footballer in France to come out in 2004 and founded a charity, Foot Ensemble, to combat homophobia in the game, admitted that he did expect some pushback on the league’s initiative. “It’s important to go see the players, to speak with them and explain why it’s important to give visibility to the fight against homophobia,” Lemaire has said. Lemaire, who regularly speaks to young players and at high schools to raise awareness, also says the issue needs to be taken more seriously by clubs and authorities, amid what he sees as a worsening situation.

French football’s ambivalence towards the issue is evident – as shown by the ’ dismissive comments of Hugo Lloris, the then France captain, about wearing the rainbow armband in the buildup to the World Cup in Qatar. The goalkeeper’s remarks led to Foot Ensemble breaking off its partnership with the French FA.

It goes without saying that in a country where acts of hate targeting LGBTQ+ people are on the rise – a physical attack takes place every other day, according to SOS Homophobie’s statistics – using football matches as a platform to combat homophobia remains as relevant as ever. Last week’s rainbow shirt fiasco shows exactly why such campaigns are still needed for French football itself as well.

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