In the wake of the Covid-19 there have been few, if any, positive sporting stories to emerge.
However, there are some clubs that, despite having no supporters in attendance, no in-person social events and no members able to come together for a kick-about, are set to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever.
As many a clichéd advert has sought to remind us, on the pitch, nothing but the name and number on the back of the shirt matters.
Or at least that should be the case. For the most part, however, especially in the world of football, the culture of the game is still exceedingly masculine, a heterosexual melting pot of testosterone and ‘lad’ culture.
“I used to play five-aside at work, but it was very macho and really competitive,” said Eddie Wong, one of the original players, and current board member, of the Dublin Devils, “but then I saw an ad from someone saying he wanted to get some gay guys together for a gay-friendly kick-about, and thankfully nobody cared how shite I was!”
It is unsurprising therefore that as more and more men have felt comfortable in their sexuality, they have sought to create safer, more accepting spaces for others to enjoy the beautiful game.
And thus, around the world such teams have sprung up over time, from more social and casual teams like the New York Ramblers and the Dublin Devils, to the more professional outfits like Stonewall FC in London, all providing both a safe space for a kick-about and a highly competitive league system on top of vibrant social events.
But like all sports clubs, the Covid-19 pandemic brought an abrupt halt to nearly all aspects of their workings, forcing them to adapt, and fast. However, unlike many clubs who have struggled significantly over the past 12 months, for LGBTQ+ teams, the pandemic might have brought the curtain down on many of their plans, but in other aspects, they are growing and developing faster than ever.
Keeping the lights on
From the Premier League down, every football club has taken a financial hit during this pandemic
The lack of fans flocking to grounds bringing in a constant reliable source of income was never going to be easy to deal with.
With fans and members still sofa-bound, earnings for many of the smaller clubs have almost dried up and might have done completely if not for their sponsors.
One such club were the New York Ramblers.
Founded in 1980, the Ramblers can boast to be the world’s first organised, openly gay football club, and according to its current present Matthew Wickersham it’s this longevity that has done so much to keep them going during the pandemic:
“We’ve been in New York so long that we’ve managed to get pretty consistent sponsors that we’re always able to reach out too, but we’re so fortunate because I know so many clubs who just don’t have that.”
Indeed, the Ramblers are without question at the more fortunate end of the financial spectrum, with the club last year partnering with the New York Red Bulls and being gifted a $10,000 donation.
Yet over 3,000 miles away across the pond, teams such as the Dublin Devils were nearly not so lucky.
“We really rely on our sponsorship from the George Bar, an iconic gay bar in the heart of Dublin, and the worry was that this money would just stop,” remarked Wong.
Indeed, it is hardly surprising the club entertained such fears, with the hospitality sector taking one of the biggest hits from the pandemic.
“But there was light at the end of the tunnel as we managed to secure sponsorship with insurance companies Irish Life and Canada Life for the next three years, so we’ve now got this safety net in place along with now being able to bring in coaches to train the players along with things like new kits,” commented Wong.
This idea of LGBTQ clubs establishing something of a safety net during the pandemic can be perhaps best be shown through the development of East London based side Stonewall FC.
“I think the club has thrived, in so much as a club can without playing football,” stated first team manager Eric Najib, “we now have a great partnership with Adidas, who we have felt the support of, even through lockdown, with the new kit and all the publicity.”
This deal with Adidas is significant for many reasons, not least because it’s the first time the sportswear giant has sponsored a team in non-league before.
By having that partnership Stonewall FC have ensured that, when things start to get back to normal, they will be in a far stronger position than when they entered it in the first place.
But just like with the Ramblers and the Devils, such financial security is so vital, not just because of what it means for the team on the pitch.
More than a place to kick a ball around
The point of these unique clubs was never to become money making machines, or ‘brands’ but to provide something more.
The clubs were born out of a desire for those who felt like they didn’t fit in or felt un-welcome at more conventional football clubs to come together and meet people just like them.
Indeed, for the Dublin Devils’ Eddie Wong, the importance of the social side of the club cannot be understated: “For many people, the main reason for joining the club was to make friends and meet others in the LGBTQ community.
“I mean, before I joined I didn’t have any gay friends, so it was a big step for me, and I know a few players at the club who were only ‘out’ to a few people so it’s amazing to see them make really good friends in the club.”
Indeed, it’s a similar story with the Ramblers, as Wickersham remarked: “Some people just joined for the social side and don’t even like soccer!”
In light of this, successive lockdowns have forced the clubs to adapt in order to keep that social lifeline going.
Naturally, Zoom has become an invaluable asset for many during these isolated times, and things are no different for the Devils.
“Recently we’ve been having Zoom chats and drinks, and even got a group of us playing the [popular mobile] game Among Us! We just felt like we needed to do something to keep people going, even though Zoom might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
“It’s about just keeping that communal spirit together,” commented Wong.
Whilst such things might seem trivial to outsiders, it’s small activities and gestures like this which underpin the importance of these clubs for so many people, the importance of that ‘communal spirit’, even at the cost of some Zoom fatigue.
Life after Covid
Whilst the Covid pandemic will soon be consigned to history thanks to the global vaccine effort, the same cannot be said for homophobia in football.
Clubs such as Stonewall FC, the New York Ramblers and the Dublin Devils were all formed because their founders didn’t feel welcome or accepted in the footballing community.
Indeed, as Stonewall FC’s Eric Najib remarked, there is still a long way to go: “Football fans in the stands have changed massively in the last 20 years but to say it’s fine would be wrong. There is still so much more that needs to happen in terms of behaviour.”
Whilst recent years have seen the Premier League promote greater acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community within football, there is still a long way to go
Yet it is not so farfetched to say that in those 20 years, the clubs have developed from being a refuge for gay men, to be a celebration of gay culture and gay identity.
It’s for this reason that this new financial safety is so important and why it sets them apart from other teams.
Using it to pay for trips to The Gay Games for example isn’t done just for sporting glory, but to build that sense of belonging and togetherness which, thanks to Covid, has been shown to be more important than ever before.