On Wednesday, Josh Cavallo was briefly the biggest player in world football.
With a message posted across his and his Australian A-League Men club’s social media channels, the 21-year-old Adelaide United utility altered the landscape of football around the globe with one simple sentence: “I am proud to publicly announce that I am gay.”
For six years, the young Australian football player had grappled with his identity and a sense of shame, fearing that he “would never be able to do what I love and be gay” and left feeling “numb.”
But now he was sharing his truth.
— Josh Cavallo (@JoshuaCavallo) October 27, 2021
A day after that announcement, the relief and happiness he felt, the weight of the anchor that had been lifted from his spirit, was clearly apparent.
“I can’t wipe the smile off my face,” Cavallo told ESPN.
“It’s been a long time coming, I haven’t felt this for more than six years in my life.
“It’s taken me to a new level. When I told Ross [Aloisi, United’s assistant coach] and Carl [Veart, United’s head coach] five weeks ago, they welcomed me and said: ‘Josh, you’re still the exact same person, we still love you for who you are. You’re a talented kid and we want what’s best for you.’
“And that really touched my heart. It was very heartwarming going forward. I was very confident when I told the team, and they welcomed me with their arms open. They said the exact same thing and ‘we’re proud of you and we’re glad that you’re comfortable in your own skin.’
“It was a very symbolic moment for me and I’m definitely going to remember it for the rest of my life.”
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In coming out, Cavallo became the only current top-flight male professional footballer in the world to openly share his truth. Statistically, of course, it’s impossible that he’s alone; but in one remarkable act of honesty, the youngster from Melbourne’s southeast changed the narrative.
He and United’s media team had expected there to be a reaction, but they have been taken aback by the massive global extent of the support that followed the announcement. Across football, clubs such as Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester United all sent messages of support, pride, and thanks across their official social media channels, as did luminaries such as Robin van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gary Lineker. Even global governing body FIFA chimed in.
At the time of the posts, Cavallo had around 10,000 followers on Instagram. Now, it’s well over 100,000 — and rising. Indeed, if you know Cavallo and have messaged him, he wants you to know that he’s not ignoring you — he’s just having a bit of trouble keeping track of everything right now.
“[The level of coverage] is a shock, but I wanted to make a statement with me coming out,” Cavallo told ESPN.
“I wanted to show that being gay in the normal world is normal, so why isn’t it allowed in football? Or why is it seen differently and perceived differently?
“I want to show to the kid that’s watching or has seen my video in the last few days that it is OK to be yourself. If you find that you are gay or you are just different — you come from a different cultural background or upbringing — that it’s OK to be different. You don’t have to ‘fit in.’
“Unfortunately, I lived six years of my life lying and trying to cover up, act and hide things from people when, really, getting the reaction I did yesterday, I didn’t need to do that. I’m so excited and I’m proud to announce that I’m gay.
“It’s crazy when you’ve got idols like Antoine Griezmann, someone [who has] won a World Cup, sending you a message of support and saying he’s proud of you. That is phenomenal. It’s also outside of football, you have people like Sam Smith messaging you, Ricky Martin and Ellen DeGeneres saying congratulations.
“It’s huge and I really wasn’t expecting this response. Look, I want to change it, I want to make sure that we’re in 2021 now, I believe everyone deserves the right to feel comfortable to be their true authentic self and comfortable in their own skin. I want to pave the way for future generations so this is not a big deal in years to come.”
Proud of you @JoshuaCavallo ✊🏼❤️ pic.twitter.com/VRU5Dda0s8
— Antoine Griezmann (@AntoGriezmann) October 27, 2021
Social media being the way it is, there were, inevitably, less supportive contributions from some. Those born of ignorant hatred and mindless abuse could be dismissed with little consideration, the product of poisoned thoughts without an ounce of the courage or poise of those they targeted.
But there were also responses of insidious apathy, sadly predictable cries of ‘who cares?’. As if male footballers, let alone footballers coming off a rising star award and on the verge of a decade-plus long professional career, come out at the same rate that others suffer a calf strain.
One only needed to watch Cavallo’s announcement video, his emotions as he shared his story, to know that such responses were nonsense. And one only needs to see the reaction from the LGTBQ+ community, how they’ve embraced Cavallo and noted that his actions will help inspire and protect others, to know that such arguments are damaging.
“We know that experiences of prejudice and harassment, and/or not being able to live openly can impact on the mental health of LGBTQ people,” Beau Newell, National Program Manager for Pride In Sport, said.
“Research shows that traditional sports are often seen as unwelcome spaces for people of all ages with diverse sexualities or genders, with many athletes being completely or partially in the closet while playing sport due to fear of intolerance and discrimination from other players, coaches and officials.
“This is a fear that is justified for many, but as many LGBTQ athletes who have recently come out over the past few years have demonstrated, it has not been their experience.
“Sport has an amazing opportunity to provide a safe and inclusive environment to all people, including people with diverse genders and sexualities.”
Adelaide United midfielder Josh Cavallo comes out as gay, expressing the immense support he’s received from his family, friends and team.
Having interacted with Cavallo since he was a youth player at Melbourne City, I was hit by duelling emotions; joy at seeing him feel comfortable enough and supported enough to share his story, and the resulting happiness that clearly brought him, but also a sense of intense regret that, for all the time that I’d known him, he’d been experiencing this internal battle and these feelings of pain.
But now, his act of coming out, as former A-League Men player Andy Brennan did before him, and the number of LGBTQ+ athletes in the women’s game, gives football an opportunity.
It gives fans in the stands the opportunity to call out and stamp out abuse and vitriol thrown towards players on the field. It gives clubs and media organisations the opportunity to show that they are places for everyone by identifying comments of hatred and acknowledging them only so far as to delete them.
It gives players in dressing rooms, no matter the level, an opportunity to call out acts of anti-gay behaviour and hate — so the teammate they don’t know is going through their own journey doesn’t have to.
21-year-old Josh Cavallo describes the weight that’s been lifted from his shoulders and how he’d like to be viewed by the world as his career goes on.
“There were times when I was on the field and I was thinking about the conversation I was going to have after the game in the change room, how I’m going to dodge a question or how I can’t hang around after training because I don’t want to be questioned or put on the spot,” Cavallo told ESPN.
“It was a way of protecting myself. You isolate yourself. And that’s not healthy, it doesn’t affect you in a good way. That’s something I could no longer do and deal with myself. I wanted to live a life and be free to live a life that everyone else is living.
“I have never been happier than this moment in my life.”
Cavallo, with a long career ahead of him, has opened the door for football to be a more welcoming and safe place by coming out, and the onus now is on the footballing community not to slam it in his face — with every person still facing their own journey watching on.
“I would like to be known as Josh the footballer, not Josh the gay footballer,” Cavallo told ESPN. “It’s something I want to share and I feel comfortable sharing with the world because at the end of the day it makes me happy. I go to bed and I go to sleep happy.
“There was a long period in my life when it wasn’t like that. And now I’m getting to experience that, I’m kind of thinking why has it taken me so long to do this because I’ve been in a dark place for a long time when I didn’t need to be.”