But when Ryan Atkin steps onto the field at Eastbourne Borough Tuesday, he will become the first openly gay man in English professional soccer a sign of how far the sport lags behind others in overcoming homophobia despite its vast wealth and corporate support.
Ryan Atkin is a referee at English Football League and National League games.
It is a National League game, five tiers below the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, and the venue only holds 4,150 fans but English soccer’s ruling body knows it marks a significant milestone.
There are thousands of gay male soccer players and fans worldwide, many of them playing for the 100-plus amateur or semi-professional teams registered with the International Gay & Lesbian Football Association (IGLFA).
In the U.S, the MLS recorded its first openly gay male professional soccer player in 2013 when Robbie Rogers returned to L.A.
However, the glitzy top tiers of the English sport dominated by billions of dollars in TV revenues, corporate sponsorship and global merchandising have remained stubbornly free of openly gay players or officials.
“It is slightly behind other sports but [men’s soccer] is getting there and organizations are making big strides,” Atkin told Britain’s ITV ahead of Tuesday’s game.