There are more than 5000 male professional footballers in Britain. Not one of them is publicly gay. It's a statistic that we've used before here at i-D - the keener-eyed among you may remember that we spoke to LA Galaxy's Robbie Rogers for The LGBTQi-D Issue in September of last year - but it's still one that bears repeating. In fact, it's exactly the kind of mind-boggling number that inspired Rhys Chapman, a 27 year old filmmaker from East Anglia, to dedicate the last three years of his life to making a short film on the subject.
The resulting WONDERKID, the story of a young player (played by Chris Mason) coming to terms with his sexuality in a traditionally macho environment, is not only is it a triumph in football filmmaking (the best depiction of that strange, be-headphoned life of a professional footballer that we've ever seen), but also a triumph of the medium as a tool to make the world a better place - to empathise and provoke, question and unpick.
When we spoke to Rhys, the atrocity that took place in Orlando this weekend was still unimaginable, but one answer he gave seems particularly pertinent now. He said, "the core message of this film is that it is ok to be yourself." And while events like Orlando might, for a while, make that seem hard, it's films like WONDERKID, moments like Monday night's vigil at Old Compton Street and the bravery of people like Robbie Rogers, who came out in 2013, that mean that hate will never win.
WONDERKID is the real deal and Rhys Chapman is the real deal. Watch the trailer and read our interview below.
Hello Rhys. You've been working on WONDERKID for a couple of years now. How important was it that you took the time to tell this story properly?
Football is the most watched and played sport in the world and because of this I see it as the perfect catalyst for furthering any current issues facing the world. I find it embarrassing that football as an institution is so far behind everyone else in accepting the gay community. Which is why it was so important to get the story and film spot on and make it feel as authentic as possible. It has been a long time in the making but I am over the moon with what we have achieved and I know it can make a world of difference in football.
Where did the initial idea come from? Were you a football fan growing up?
The idea came to me after I saw a documentary on the poet John Cooper Clarke, who said his English teacher at school told him to copy a style that you like but write about what you know. One of my favourite films is Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, so I thought I would take inspiration from that and write about something I know about. I was a massive football fan growing up, played football competitively but unfortunately the environment always put me off. I thought it would be fitting to make a film about a footballer that was alienated by the world around him and it went from there really.
When did you first become aware of homophobia within the game?
When I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker I knew it was important that the work I created would educate the audience as well as entertain. So after I had the initial idea I looked into key issues in the game like racism and corruption but one thing that really struck me was that out of the 5000 male professionals in this country not one was openly gay. What I love about filmmaking is you can create an entire world on screen that the audience can believe to be real life events unfolding. As a result of not knowing who the gay footballers are, then we won't have been directly exposed to what it might be like for them hiding their sexuality. I thought it made perfect sense to build the character's struggles around having to hide his sexuality and knew this medium was the ideal format to shine a light on this subject.
WONDERKID focuses particularly on the reaction of other players... Is there a 'pack mentality' at work here? Do players feel compelled to adopt certain mindsets in order to fit in?
Something we have looked at in the film is the 'lad banter' environment and the humiliating initiations that young footballers are forced to go through by senior players. The reason they do it is too toughen them up so that when they first play in front of 60,000 fans they're not afraid of making a mistake. We have shown how this might affect a young adolescent and how it would make them feel about their own identity as a gay man.
How about those fans? In what way do they fuel homophobia at matches?
The role fans have to play at the matches and via social media is something we have focused heavily on in WONDERKID. Football is a working class sport, I think it always should be, but with that comes the tribal mentality that has historically been associated with supporting a club. There is this false assumption that you become an anonymous face in the crowd and that that any weakness in the opposition should be exploited. Because of the anonymity and mentality, fans think they can say whatever they want to the players. I think this is made worse by the celebrity status of the players leading to the fans not thinking they're real people with real feelings. The fact is they are human beings just like us and the fear of how the fans would react is the main factor in stopping players from coming out and unfortunately social media fuels this by enabling the fans to have direct contact with them.
Why is homophobic 'banter' prevalent in a way that other forms of bigotry aren't? You don't hear of racist 'banter' for instance...
When I was growing up we were never taught about sexual orientation or gender. Unfortunately it was joked about as if it was some sort of fetish. We weren't taught that a sexuality is something that you were born with and how it is simply to do with love which is easy for any kid to understand. I think the main problem is a great proportion of the population are still ignorant about sexuality and think homophobic abuse is just a bit of a joke.
Having black professional footballers forced the game to adapt and rule out racism. The difference here being that you can hide your sexuality but you cannot hide your skin colour. Until we have a curriculum with mandatory LGBT inclusive sex and relationship education or there are players to put a face on the insults, people wont understand that homophobia is on the same level as racism. This is why I knew that making WONDERKID was important as it would show the audience exactly how it would affect a young person and have a likeable character to bring a human element to the insults.
Do you think fans would even be bothered if their star player turned out to be gay?
Not at all, it is clear that talent will always prevail. I think there would be an overwhelming amount of support for any players that came out and those first players would be such an important role model for the gay community across the world, especially in countries where it is still illegal to be gay. If you look at Muhammad Ali, he was World Heavyweight Champion at a time where boxing's popularity was at its peak and black people were made to feel like second class citizens.
Ali was a world figure passionately telling the world that being black was a beautiful thing at an incredibly important time. If you look at what is going on in the world right now with gender and sexuality, I think we will look back on this time in a similar way to the changes seen with race back then. Any world level gay footballers that come out would have the ability to do for the gay community what Muhammad Ali did for black people. And what a fantastic opportunity that is.
How important are LGBT supporters groups such as the Gay Gooners? What's been the reaction among them and other gay fans towards the film?
The LGBT fan movement has been one of the most important factors in changing people's opinions to date and will continue to be moving forward. The groups act as a safe environment for LGBT fans to attend games through supporting each other and making football more inclusive. The LGBT fan groups have played an integral role in making WONDERKID the film that it is. Not only have they supported the film but have been willing to share their stories and experiences helped shape the story and helped us understand how to best use the film as a force for good.
And what's been the reaction among straight fans, for that matter?
Surprisingly positive. I grew up in a place in East Anglia called the Fens, that is somewhat behind with regards to this issue and when I went back there recently I was worried that some of the people I used to know wouldn't appreciate what I was doing. They had the complete opposite outlook, completely understood sexuality in a way that I never saw growing up and the reaction to the work I was doing gave me a lot of confidence that it is not too difficult to change people's opinions on this subject. Unfortunately you only have to go on social media and search #gaygooners to see that a lot of work needs to be done with straight fans on the whole.
Is homophobia a wider problem than just the players and fans though? What could the FA do more of to highlight the issue of homophobia in the game, for instance?
￼Danny Lynch at the FA put this very well when he said,"football can't solve society's problems". The problem is if things aren't reported then the FA can't do anything about it, which is why self policing is key. If you look at what happened last year with the Chelsea fans in Paris, that was given the coverage it should have been because people were so offended by it, but homophobia doesn't seem to strike the same reaction. Like I have said before, football's popularity gives it the responsibility to set an example. Until homophobia is given the same treatment it will remain unnoticed. What I would like to see is more coverage to campaigns that raise awareness about sexuality, gender and other forms of discrimination in the game. Seeing 'Say No To Racism' during the adverts of the Champion's League is great but what about homophobia and sexism? Why is that ignored?
What's the ultimate aim of the film?
I have made this film as, if the Premier League isn't quite ready for a gay footballer, we can at least create a fictional one. The whole young person coming to terms with their sexuality has been done, I didn't want to send that message with the character. What we have with WONDERKID is an inspiring character that knows and accepts their sexuality and wants to come out but it is the environment of their profession stopping them. The character is very inspiring and can act as the role model that football is missing. The audience will feel a great deal of compassion towards him and want him to succeed. Our collective beliefs create the world around us. If the subconscious of general population thinks that it is unlikely that a gay footballer would come out and if they did they would be met with a world of a abuse then no one will be brave enough to take that first step.
If enough people see this film, they will realise that it is actually quite a simple solution and all that is required for footballers to feel safe enough to come out is the acceptance of the people and that it is up to us to send that message to the players and make it happen.
Wonderkid director Rhys Chapman in i-D's The Activist issue, Photography Oliver Hadlee Pearch, Styling Julia Sarr-Jamois
What do you want to make next? Will you always aim to educate as well as entertain with your work?
Absolutely, I have big dreams to develop WONDERKID into a TV mini-series in the future and I will continue with the project until football is a welcoming institution for players and fans alike. I'm not sure what else the future holds for me in my career but I will always have this philosophy with the craft.
With nearly everyone having social media, a smart phone and access to high speed internet, we have the ability to directly communicate with the world. Film is the quickest and easiest way to communicate information, move people and recondition their beliefs. With that comes a responsibility to use this medium as a tool to make the world a better place and that is something I take very seriously. I'm really grateful to be getting into filmmaking at this time and the possibilities all this creates. I fully intend to dedicate the rest of my life to making highly emotive films that can be of great benefit to the world. And you can hold me to it!
Finally... Are we close to an openly gay footballer?
Text Matthew Whitehouse