Like many countries, it has been difficult to curb homophobia in Norwegian football. There have been some groundbreaking initiatives since the turn of the millennium but, despite these earnest steps, there has been a lack of progress and awareness regarding the problems facing gay footballers.
Thomas Berling’s retirement in 2000, after coming out, is a stark reminder of this.
However, a new project by the Football Association of Norway – which is also known as the NFF – could bring a positive legacy to the game.
Berling was seen as a talented prospect in Norwegian football during the late 1990s and had a bright future ahead of him.
He started his career at Mosjøen IL and Nardo FK, while his fine form for the under-19 national side secured a move to FK Lyn in 1999.
Although his professional career was taking off, Berling found it difficult to cope with his homosexuality in football.
For instance, he admitted to Dagbladet magazine in 2009 that he used various strategies during his youth career to prevent other players from getting suspicious about his sexuality.
These strategies ranged from being homophobic to having various girlfriends and using them as an alibi.
A year after joining FK Lyn, he came out to his manager Vidar Davidsen – albeit privately, although Berling started to discuss his homosexuality publicly in April 2001 – when he was aged 21 years. Berling told Dagbladet that, during this conversation, there were concerns about what would happen if he fell in love with another player at the club.
Berling decided to retire from professional football within a week, after seeing the extent of homophobia in the dressing room throughout his career.
For instance, he claimed that the word “gay” was used as an insult, rather than a word, in Norwegian football.
The lower leagues
It does appear, though, that it is possible to be a gay footballer in the lower leagues of Norwegian football.
Berling, for example, made a brief comeback in 2001 when he became the captain of Drøbak/Frogn IL, after he was approached by another homosexual footballer.
Furthermore, Anders Dale also came out in 2000, while he was a FK Vidar player, and has since carried on playing professional football.
There was also a positive response when gay magazine Blikk sponsored lower league outfit Grüner IL in 2001.
Generally, though, it is still a major issue in Norwegian football.
Big problems remain
A striking statement was found in a survey, ‘Med idretten mot homofob’, which said there were approximately 20,000 homosexuals actively playing football in Norway and around a fifth of them had attempted suicide at least once.
In addition, an investigation in 2005 by Adresseavisens found that a sixth of footballers in Norway felt uncomfortable changing in the dressing room with a homosexual footballer.
There has also been little press coverage, regarding this issue, in Norway.
Adressa journalist Terje Eidsvåg, for instance, claimed that Norwegian reports about Swedish defender Anton Hysén’s sexuality were rare, even though the two countries have similar cultures and situations surrounding homosexuality in football.
Former Sevilla goalkeeper Frode Olsen, meanwhile, was accused of defending homophobia in 2008, while working as a pundit on television.
Compared to other sports like handball, which has faced similar problems in the past, homophobia in football is covered far less proactively in Norway.
Television channel TV2, for instance, produced a documentary series called ‘Raballder’ in 2006, which was about a gay handball team based in Oslo.
Commentary by important figures
Major figures in Norwegian football have commented on these problems, though.
Karen Espelund – the former general secretary of the NFF – claimed that little had been done to reduce discrimination, other than stating in their rules that no one should be excluded on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, Nils Johan Semb, the former manager of the Norwegian national team, feels that the majority of homophobic abuse comes from supporters and players are more aware of the negative effects of such language.
Others, however, see it differently.
Viking FK’s president Ole Rugland and Aalesund FK’s chairman Arne Aambakk have stated that homosexuality is not an issue at their clubs.
Youth players at Lillestrøm SK, meanwhile, have said that they respect the honesty of their homosexual coach, Lars Bache.
It is clear that this is not a simple issue to resolve and Egil Østenstad has highlighted its complexity.
The former Southampton striker, who has publicly called for players to be sent off if they make homophobic remarks, told Dagbladet it is hard to know whether gay footballers are being bullied because he feels that homosexuality is invisible.
A turning point?
If there is a turning point, though, it has come from a recent initiative, which was focused on attitudes towards homosexuality.
In 2010, the Akershus Football Association, alongside the NFF, implemented a pilot project within 14 Komerike municipals – which gave them the power to ban homophobic footballers for up to six matches.
The project has since received local prizes in Akershus and, to gain further knowledge on the issue, the NFF has commissioned a study about the perception of homosexuality in football.
It will analyse the various challenges facing gay footballers, as well as looking at the changes that can be made so LGBT persons can see the sport as a support resource. The NFF are also hoping that the study will lead to further research on the issue, so they can take action against homophobia.
The study, which will be based on in-depth interviews, is expected to be published in mid-April 2012 and could be the breakthrough project that finally brings this issue into the mainstream.
This is a big step forward and there remains enough hope to suggest that 2012 could be the year when this issue changes for the better.