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Soccer tarnished by cold-shoulder to gays, writes Associated Press sports columnist

By JOHN LEICESTER, AP Sports Columnist

Cartelfinalkaos2009v1p PARIS -- Marcello Lippi, Italy's World Cup-winning soccer manager who seems to have both feet planted in the 19th century, says he's never come across a gay player in his 40-odd years in the sport.

Clearly, Lippi needs to take an eye-opening trip to Milan.

There's a gay soccer team there, competing weekly in an amateur league. The players' sexuality doesn't affect how they play. The ball, after all, is round for everyone.

Last season, Nuova Kaos Milano finished a creditable fourth in its league of 16 teams, not bad considering their opponents frequently try harder against them to avoid the "dishonor" of losing to gay players, says Nuova Kaos defender Klaus Heusslein.

"Here, people think, 'They have to share the same changing room. Who knows what might happen if they have gays in the locker room? They might attack people,'" says Heusslein, a 48-year-old German who lives and works in Milan.

"In Italy, it will take another 100 years to get rid of these misconceptions."

How depressing.

It's a terrible blemish on soccer that homophobia remains so rife in the sport. As long as there are no openly gay players in the English Premier League and elsewhere at the top of the game, the shiny gloss bought by soccer's wealth - in new stadiums, multimillionaire players and such like - is nothing but cheap veneer.

That players have their own perfume and fashion lines but still don't feel safe enough to be able to say that they are gay is a damning indictment on the sport. The smoke-filled backrooms may have vanished, but archaic mentalities remain. That was proved by the hooliganism that scarred an English League Cup match between West Ham and Millwall this week, where several hundred people confronted each other and hurled bottles and bricks at police officers. Those likely were the same kind of so-called fans who have taunted players with racist and homophobic abuse.

True, soccer is not alone in being behind the times. Institutional intolerance in many sports has meant that far too few top-level athletes have felt comfortable saying they are gay. All the more reason, therefore, why the world's most popular sport should take the lead. Peddling outdated views, as Lippi did this week, does soccer no favors. His comments were particularly unseemly given recent violence that has targeted gays in Rome.

Lippi, in a video interview with the Internet-broadcast program KlausCondicio, said he would advise gay players to stay in the closet. Because of the huge amount of attention that soccer gets in Italy, a gay soccer couple would create scandal if they came out, he argued.

"If a player came to me and confessed his homosexuality, I'd advise him not to express it, because it would create problems and could be exploited," he said. "I don't think it would be possible in football to have a relationship of this type. Maybe it already exists, I don't know."

Somewhere in Italy, perhaps in the national team he coaches or in the Serie A sides that Lippi once managed or played for, secretly gay players must have been shaking their heads.

Heusslein, the openly gay amateur, certainly did.

"It's just repeating the same old stereotypes," he said. "He's either blind or he's stupid."

"He should ask himself what really would be the problem if he had gays on his team. Would that change his capacity to play, would it change his skills?" Heusslein asked. "People should see what they are doing on the field, not what they doing in their own bedrooms."

According to British gay-rights campaigners, mentalities are only moderately more enlightened in the Premier League. The chanting of homophobic abuse by fans has been banned, on paper at least, at grounds since the start of the 2007-2008 season, and police this year charged 11 men who hurled abuse at former England defender Sol Campbell.

Nevertheless, the only top British player to date to have gone public was Justin Fashanu. The former Nottingham Forest and Norwich City striker hanged himself in 1998, fearful that because he was gay he wouldn't get a fair trial in the United States on sexual assault charges.

Activist Peter Tatchell, a friend of Fashanu's, says he knows of several gay players in the Premier League who want to come out but dare not because they are concerned that their clubs and sponsors wouldn't support them. This despite the fact that Tatchell believes British soccer has progressed sufficiently since Fashanu's death for gay players to be able to go public.

"They'd get a rough ride from some teammates and some fans for a while, but eventually it would calm down and most people would accept them," he says. "They'd also get quite a lot of support and admiration from liberal-minded fans."

That day, when it comes, will be a moment to celebrate because it will show that soccer is becoming the all-inclusive sport it professes to be. As a leader in the sport, Lippi should be a force for such progress, not standing in its way.

---

Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this column.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.

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