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Why are gay footballers still hiding in locker room closets?

As the World Cup moves to its climax, there may be lingering gloom in England at the dismal memory of the golden generation's leaden performance, but last weekend in London was a glad time to be gay. Or so it seemed.

Mayor Boris Johnson kicked off the annual Pride festival before marching through town under the Gay Liberation Front banner flanked by Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone and a number of Tory MPs including the party's openly lesbian vice-chair Margot James.

Johnson posed for pictures alongside veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, beaming as he pointed to Tatchell's placard, 'End the ban on gay marriage', and observing that, "If the Tories and Lib-Dems can form a coalition, why can't we have gay marriage?" Cheers and happy laughter all around.

Johnson's leader David Cameron confirmed the party's gay friendliness by supporting the nomination of the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, as Bishop of Southwark. It might be recalled that John was at the centre of an unpleasant dispute seven years ago after he'd been proposed by Archbishop Rowan Williams for the somewhat less prestigious diocese of Reading.

Williams backed down in face of fierce opposition from African bishops, supported by the British Calvinist lobby-group Reform, which warned that it would split the worldwide Anglican communion if John's ordination went ahead.

Since then, the Dean has further enraged opponents of gay clergy by entering a civil partnership with his long-time companion. But this time Williams shows no sign of wavering and it's widely accepted the nomination will go through.

In Ireland, too, gay rights are on the up. Last week, a bill permitting civil partnerships sailed though the Dail. The controversy which followed has focused mainly on whether the measure should have gone further and provided for gay marriage.

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Meanwhile, genial gay senator David Norris is making a serious bid to follow Mary McAleese as Irish president.

Belfast Pride has become the most sassy, inclusive and colourful public event of the year. The first-ever Pride march in Derry is set for the end of next month.

Everywhere we look, then, bigotry against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people is ebbing away. Homophobia is no longer publicly acceptable. Equality for all, irrespective of sexual orientation, has become a reality.

How come there were no gay footballers in South Africa? Around 700 vigorous, fit and flimsily dressed young men gathered for an event advertised as a joyous coming together of people of all arts and parts and colours and cultures. Except gay culture. There wasn't a homosexual among them. Not that dared speak his name.

More significantly, perhaps, not a single Premiership player seems willing to denounce homophobia on the terraces. Earlier this year, the Football Association couldn't find a player from the top flight to endorse a video designed to discourage anti-gay hate-chants. The project has been abandoned. Players queued up to be associated with the Kick Out Racism campaign a decade ago. But no takers for kicking out bigotry aimed at gays.

Former Scottish international Pat Nevin, one of the leaders of the anti-racist initiative, put the dearth of volunteers for a campaign against homophobia down to the fact that "there are actually very few gay footballers".

In a 20-year career with Celtic, Clyde, Chelsea, Everton, Tranmere, Kilmarnock and Motherwell, Nevin says that he doesn't believe he ever encountered a gay player.

Brian Clough, too, is remembered as a man of progressive if cantankerous views.

But his mind, like Nevin's, rebelled against the idea of a gay footballer. Justin Fashanu, Britain's first £1m black player, had not yet come out when he arrived at Forest. Clough jokily recalled in his autobiography: "'Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?' I asked him. 'A baker's, I suppose.' 'Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?' 'A butcher's.' 'So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?'"

Fashanu eventually came out, and faced such a blizzard of soul-destroying derision that, 12 years ago, he hanged himself. He remains the only English footballer to have publicly acknowledged his gay sexuality.

Can it be that football, the most representative expression of popular mood the world over, is uniquely out of step with changing attitudes sweeping across the rest of society?

Why no football equivalents of Cork hurler Donal Og Cusack, Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham, former British Lions captain Gareth Thomas?

Or could it be that football, on account of its particular authenticity, provides a context for the expression of attitudes and values which remain widespread and deeply felt in society but which are not reflected in well-composed pictures of Boris and Peter shoulder-to-shoulder or clerical bigotry taking a clout from an Anglican crosier or David Norris scampering delightfully towards Ãras an Uachtarain?

Shankly may have been wrong when he said, if he did, that football is more important than life or death.

But it isn't only a game either.