The sad death of a soccer maverick

The tortured life of Britain's first openly gay soccer star ends in tragedy.

Published June 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Justin Fashanu died this May.

Justin who?

That was, more or less, the reaction of the British press when the 37-year-old gay soccer player's body was found hanging in an East London garage. It should have been a big story. Star suicides get headlines, and Fashanu had been a star. At 17, he represented Britain on the junior national team. At 19, as a center forward for Norwich City, he scored a goal that's been voted one of the best in history -- a magnificent long-range shot from far outside the penalty box. In 1980, he was the first black player purchased for 1 million pounds by a British soccer team.

His abilities weren't limited to the pitch. Fashanu had a talent for getting media attention. Intelligent, articulate and charming, he stood out. He gave journalists the stories they wanted: affairs for the tabloids, comments about opera and classical music for the broadsheets. In interviews he let personal details slip, shocking the conformist soccer world. He had, it seemed, the skill of a Peli combined with the media savvy of a Dennis Rodman.

But Fashanu's career was troubled. He wandered from team to team, never finding a comfortable home. When his attempts to come out in the press backfired, he moved to America. Last April he was charged with a sexual offense in Maryland, where he was living. Meanwhile, in England, he'd become the butt of sports-pages jokes.

In February, three months before Fashanu died, A.J. Ali, president of the Maryland Mania, brought Fashanu to Maryland to coach his team. It was a turnaround for Fashanu, who hadn't held a high-profile job since his dismissal from a Scottish team in 1994. Ali, who describes himself as "probably Justin's closest friend," believes Fashanu was about to embark on a successful coaching career in America. "He was happy here," says Ali. "He had a lot of friends here. He was helping literally thousands of players. He had a tremendous amount to offer the soccer world."

Then, on April 3, several days after Fashanu had left for England, he was charged with sexually molesting a 17-year-old boy in Ellicott City, Md. An international search was launched, and newspapers reported that Fashanu had fled the law. In his suicide note Fashanu refuted these reports, writing that he didn't know about the charges until he got to London and saw media reports. He said he had "a relationship of mutual consent" with the alleged victim, who tried to extort money from him, and pressed charges when Fashanu refused to pay up.

It was a troubled end to a troubled life. As babies, Fashanu and his brother John -- also a football player -- were left in an orphanage by their Nigerian parents. Later the boys were adopted by a middle-class white couple. Fashanu's professional troubles began in 1980, after he was signed by Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough for 1 million pounds. Clough, known as a crotchety disciplinarian, didn't take to his personable new recruit. He said Fashanu had "an articulate image that impressed the impressionable" and made it difficult for Clough to "accept Fashanu as genuine and one of us." Fashanu, meanwhile, was beginning to explore Nottingham's gay scene. When rumors of Fashanu's homosexuality reached Clough, the manager, who later called Fashanu "a bloody poof," suspended and finally sacked Fashanu.

Fashanu's career never really recovered. In 1982, Clough sold Fashanu to Notts County for just 150,000 pounds. Fashanu played well, but in 1983 he sustained a knee injury that wouldn't mend properly. He spent the next years coaching and playing in North America, where he became a born-again Christian, a faith he spoke about struggling with. He returned to England in the early 1990s to play for Third Division Torquay United -- a far cry from First Division Nottingham.

As his career deteriorated, Fashanu started getting headlines again -- but not for his playing. In 1990, Fashanu was the first soccer player to come out publicly. He told the British tabloid the Sun that he'd had sex with fellow players and a Member of Parliament. Initially, it looked like a courageous move, but when Fashanu admitted he'd given the interview to raise money and that the stories of Westminster seductions were untrue, it was seen more as a lurid publicity attempt. A similar episode occurred in 1994. A Scottish football club dismissed Fashanu for "conduct unbecoming a professional footballer" after he tried to sell unsubstantiated stories about gay sex orgies with Tory cabinet ministers. Fashanu, it seemed, was willing to say anything to get headlines.

Whatever the circumstances of Fashanu's death -- it may be impossible to ever know exactly what happened in Maryland -- it's clear that his career went drastically wrong, in part because his personal life was so at odds with the sport he played. Soccer, more than most sports, depends on teamwork. A goal is never one player's achievement; it's the result of careful and prolonged team interaction. Soccer culture reflects the game. Managers and players eschew individual personality in favor of team identity. Soccer fans follow teams, not individuals. Fashanu -- gay and charismatic -- didn't fit into this culture.

Would Fashanu be alive today if he'd been born 10 years later? It's possible. Many of today's biggest sports stars -- think Rodman, Andre Agassi, Shquille O'Neal -- play up to the media the same way Fashanu did. But media exposure and cult of personality have helped these athletes' careers, while Fashanu's career, in the 1980s, was hurt by the same. It's a fate Fashanu seemed eerily aware of. "When you put yourself in the firing line, you are open to attack," he said in an interview. "I know I'm there to be shot down in flames."

By Tamsin Todd

Tamsin Todd is a writer living in London.

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