I honestly think that football may have saved my life twice. The first time was when I was twenty-two, having just graduated from university and enrolled at law school. That was the same year, as Fate would have it, that I realised I was bisexual and therefore broke up with a woman whom I had hoped might be the love of my life. I was possibly getting ahead of myself on the love front – as Andre 3000 pointed out in “Miss Jackson”, forever is a very long time to be with someone – but the joint emotional impact of coming out into a hostile world and losing such prized intimacy was absolutely devastating. Unable to process what I saw as the horror of my new life – I thought that I was now a disappointment to my family and community, and would be cast to the margins for the rest of my life, living my open and shameful secret – I looked about for any refuge that I could find. Substances were out of the question: I knew that drugs of any form would only exacerbate my issues. So, too, was counselling: I wasn’t ready, just yet, to explore such raw wounds. All that left, for those few early months, was football.
Ah, football. In a world where nothing else made sense, this game consistently did. Because no matter how much I hated my bisexuality each morning, I could still control a ball on the run as it dropped from the sky, a fifty-yard pass brought to heel mid-sprint. I could still lose my man by drifting beyond him as a cross came in from either flank, and strike a ball low across the goalkeeper into the bottom right-hand corner. Yes – I could still do that. I played in every amateur match I could find – thirty-one in just six months – and, strangely enough, I never played so well. I think my team-mates were surprised, but I couldn’t yet tell them the reason why – which is that football was all that I had.
The second time football saved my life was two years later. I had moved to London by now, and was working at a law firm in the Square Mile, where a few bigoted and ignorant remarks from colleagues meant that I was very discreet about my sexuality. Actually, no, let’s be honest – I was also embarrassed by it. There I was, at 23 years of age, yet when I was in gay bars I felt as awkward as a teenager. No-one teaches you, especially as a black man, how to be tender with other men. You’ve spent your life competing with them, beating them (up) on the field of play, and now you’ve come out of the closet you’re meant to be physically intimate with them. Back then, it felt like being told to make love to a brick wall.
That’s when football saved me again. I had found it difficult to make new friends on the gay scene, partly through bad luck and partly through my own defensiveness. I needed to find a group of men where sex wasn’t the primary end point of the conversation – which, in fairness, was to be expected in many of the nightclubs I was going to. Hey, they were nightclubs. And that’s when I stumbled across Stonewall Football Club, and everything changed.
I found Stonewall, named of course after the famous New York riots of 1969, when browsing online, and went along to a training session in West London one weekday night. Britain’s first gay football club, founded in 1991, had been recruiting very well since its inception; so much so that it had four teams, the first of which was riding high in the Middlesex County Premier League, and well over a hundred members. Their best player had even been on the professional books of a Scottish side, Falkirk. One season, he had netted sixty goals. Though the standard of my training session was high, the coaches gave me a chance with the third eleven; and so that Sunday I wandered down to Battersea, ready to meet my new team-mates.
I was a little nervous, I will admit. I hadn’t met any of them, and so as far as they knew I was the mystery new kid who had been drafted in. I was first to get there, and was waiting by the bandstand when the first of them showed up. The striking thing was how diverse they were; these were footballers of English, Irish, Brazilian, Chinese, Caribbean and Japanese heritage. They were a true cross-section of London, which immediately made me feel far more at ease than some of the racially homogenous parts of the London gay scene. Most importantly, as soon as they had introduced themselves, a few of them started gently mocking me, a sign of fraternal affection. These were my people, I thought, I might just enjoy this. I was beginning to feel at home: but then came some major discomfort.
“What position do you play?” asked Lawrence, the team’s manager. It was an innocuous enough question, on the face of it, but when you join a new club you don’t want to be a diva. I had already assessed the situation and worked that the team had at least three forwards – Martin, Louie, and Nigel – so I didn’t want to create any tension by saying that I was a striker. What the hell, I thought, I’ll be a good sport, and go wherever they need me. I’m tall, thin, and reasonably quick, they’ll probably just stick me on the wing. “I’ll play anywhere, I said, thinking: as long as they don’t put me in central midfield.
“Fantastic!” said Lawrence. “You can play in central midfield.”
Oh, my God. Reader, have you ever played in central midfield? I had done it just three times before. It is the most exhausting thing you can do on a football field. Never mind the running – never mind that. It’s all the thinking you have to do. Never let anyone tell you that midfielders are not intelligent. They are masters of anticipation, positioning and movement. The first time I played there – when I was still at school, in my late teens – I was blown away. It felt like a completely different sport. As a striker you are at the fringes of the action; you’re watching at the edge of the brawl as everyone punched away in the dust-cloud that their scrap has kicked up. As a central midfielder, you are the cyclone. You’re the storm and the fury. I looked down at my pipe-thin arms and slim-fit shoulders. I didn’t feel like the storm and the fury. I looked up at Lawrence. “Okay”, I said.
It was only thirty minutes to kick-off against a side from south London, wittily named “A3 Milan”. And now I was nervous again. You see, Stonewall was the only gay team in a league full of straight ones, and in previous years had had to deal with homophobic comments from opponents. And I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that pressure – not in a match in an unfamiliar position, playing with new team-mates. Homophobic remarks affected me very differently to racist ones – the latter were easier to deal with because, fundamentally, I liked being black, whilst I still didn’t particularly like being bisexual. All it had brought me thus far was a broken heart, a frostier relationship with my family, the fear of being beaten up if seen holding hands with a partner in public. Let’s be honest – I hated it, and any vaguely bigoted comment could have brought me to the point of violence.
Please RT if of interest – the fundraising campaign for issue 2 of @CARICOMWEB, the magazine about Black British football. (I’ve written an essay on my debut for @StonewallFC; other subjects include art, Brexit, gentrification and Southgate’s England.)https://t.co/5BbIxDiQ5E pic.twitter.com/IZTQCRWbx5
— Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) November 29, 2018
Ten minutes to kick off. We were going to play in a 4-4-2 formation, so I would be one of a pair in the middle. How was I going to do this? At such times, I had to ask myself one important question: What would Patrick Vieira do? The French midfielder, a figure of endless energy and invention, would have known how to handle a game like this – a windswept surface against rivals who looked like they were about to kick chunks out of us. For inspiration I grabbed a shirt with the number 4 on the back, the same as Vieira wore during his legendary time at Arsenal, and then told myself what I thought were the basic rules of central midfield. Never get drawn out of position – that means never going any more than ten yards closer to either touchline. Never jump to contest a header from a goal-kick – if you lose it, you’ll expose your centre-backs, so instead wait at the back of the centre-circle for the flick-on to drop to you. And get the ball out of the middle of the pitch as quickly as possible. One-touch passes to either flank. Now get out there, and do it.
I got out there. And I won’t lie, I struggled. The men opposite me in centre-midfield – well, they were men. I felt ashamed. These were two black men, my height, aggressively heterosexual (at least, I presumed), hammering into each challenge with an intensity I had not yet summoned. But then I remembered not where I was, but who I was. Because no matter how much self-loathing I bore, I knew one thing: I could play. Your team-mates never truly trust you until you’re under pressure and they see your first touch. As I grew in self-assurance, though, I sensed that, in turn, their faith grew in me. I started winning tackles, and shrugging when they came in suspiciously late. I smirked when they refused to help me up after a foul. I passed, and passed, and passed. And I ran. My God, I ran. Helping out the centre-backs and full-backs, closing down wingers who cut infield. We were two-one down with twenty minutes to go, and then the moment came.
Nigel – Lord, he was quick – had started another sprint down the left wing, a flank along which he’d been speed-skating for most of the match. He was so close to the touchline that I think his outstretched left arm was often out of play. At that pace, the poor full-back couldn’t get within six inches of him, and as he surged past him again I saw an opportunity. My midfield rivals had been caught upfield after one of A3 Milan’s attacks, and so I was in the clear as I cantered forward through the heart of the pitch, ten yards behind Nigel and about fifteen yards to his right. When I was just outside the area, I yelled for him to deliver the ball, and it duly arrived – struck smoothly and firmly as a forehand winner, rolling urgently into my path. As I reached the top of the box, I saw a defender lunge in – I made to drift left and then darted right, evading him, and with my head still down, so not as to alert the goalkeeper, I thrashed the ball with my right. I can still see it now – it sang through the air, struck with all the hope and pain and frustration of the previous seventy minutes and maybe much of the last two years, swerving slightly before soaring just inside the goalkeeper’s right-hand post. As I turned I roared, and first to me was Kwokkei, who’d somehow made it all the way from the right-back position. An Arsenal fan, he repeatedly yelled the greatest of compliments – “Vieira! Vieira!” – before engulfing me in a hug, and my other team-mates – my brothers! – then followed suit.
We scored again just before the end – of course we did – to win the match 3-2; and, looking back, that win, that goal of mine, was the first day of the rest of my life. All of a sudden I had ten teammates, ten new friends, who I loved playing with: before whom, and for whom, I had risked most of what I knew as a footballer in order to sacrifice myself for the team. We were superb that year, winning our first seven matches and finishing third in the table, and I look back on it with so much pride – eight goals, eight assists, and countless challenges. When I told my straight friends, who’d only ever seen me play as a striker, that I was now a central midfielder, they laughed at the thought. “You?” they said, aghast at the thought that I could play a role, well, so much less lazy. “Yes, me”, I replied. I was different now, both on and off the field. For the rest of that year, and beyond, the Stonewall third eleven fought together, laughed together, and in some cases found ourselves again. Along the way – judging by the increasingly friendly way in which our opponents received us – we won respect throughout the league as not only as gay and bisexual men who could really play, but more importantly as equal human beings. And that, beyond any points we would go on to earn, was the most important victory I would ever win on the field of play.
This article will be featured in Issue Two of CARICOM Magazine, a printed publication that explores the space where the Black-British experience and football intersect.