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Former goalkeeper Arnold Smit is a mentor for gay footballers. He spoke with FIFPro recently.

As Arnold Smit was driving to training in a coastal town near Amsterdam in May 1998 he switched on the radio. The Dutch goalkeeper had signed for FC Volendam a year earlier after a decade in Ajax’s academy, and was coming to the end of his first season as a professional footballer.

For the previous few years he had kept a secret from club staff, teammates and even his parents: he was gay. So when the radio newsreader announced that the only openly-gay footballer Justin Fashanu (see picture below) had committed suicide, the 19-year-old Smit was stunned.

Smit had followed Fashanu’s story since the Englishman came out as homosexual eight years earlier. “It was a great comfort to know there was another gay player,” Smit said. “He was my role model." On hearing of Fashanu’s death, Smit needed someone to turn to for support.


"I gathered all my courage and went to one of my club’s board members," Smit said. "I said ‘what would happen if one of our team was also gay?’ He said, ‘well, either that player should hide it or quit football’.

“I had looked for support but I did not get it. My world collapsed, my whole world was football. I came to a deep, dark point, when I seriously considered committing suicide. I found myself in a wood with a rope.”

Smit said he talked himself out of suicide – “this can’t be right, I told myself” – but when his contract was ended in a round of job cuts at Volendam a few weeks later he had no appetite to stay in football and decided to leave the sport he adored.

Eventually, he told his parents he was gay and began working in an office that provides legal aid, It was only years later when watching a football show on Dutch television in which the commentators were making jokes about gay players that Smit (below) was motivated to come out publicly.

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“All the bad things I imagined would happen, didn’t happen,” Smit said. “In fact, I was contacted by several players; they were relieved to know they were not the only ones. It’s very good just to tell someone you are gay. It’s such a big secret that it eats at you.”

Smit now works as a mentor for the John Blankenstein Foundation, which is named after a late, well-known gay Dutch referee and pushes for the acceptance of gay and lesbian footballers. Smit visits each professional club in the Netherlands. “We do it just to get the issue out there,” Smit said.

“Being gay is still a no-go area in many clubs and that’s what we need to change. The attitude is changing but it’s changing very slowly. Justin Fashanu’s was a negative story: we need positive stories of people who are willing to make a change.”

FIFPro, PSV Eindhoven and the Belgian and Dutch fooball federations are among organizations supporting the Heroes of Football campaign, together with the European Union and the John Blankenstein foundation.