“Forbidden Games : The Justin Fashanu Story”

The First Openly Gay Footballer

Amos Lassen

Directors Adam Darke and Jon Carey look Justin Fashanu’s legacy. He was the first openly gay footballer in the United Kingdom. He was also the first £1 million black footballer, and a figure of fascination for tabloid journalists until he hanged himself in 1998, at the age of 36.

Fashanu was one of five children born to Nigerian parents in Central London. He and his younger brother John were given up for adoption by their mother when they were still infants and raised a white family in Shropham, Norfolk. They grew up as anomalies in an overwhelmingly white part of the country. Both Fashanus were gifted footballers, and were both picked up by Norwich as schoolboys. Justin was quick, strong, and gifted in sports and off the field, he liked fast cars, nice clothes, and the adulation of being a star in a provincial city could bring.

However, it was the £1 million move in 1981 to Nottingham Forest and his being managed by the Brian Clough that was partly responsible for Fashanu’s descent. Rumors spread about his late-night trips to the city’s gay clubs and he often went AWOL causing Clough to become very angry.

Fashanu hung around the middle-tiers of English football for a couple of years, but then a terrible knee injury threatened to end his career. After expensive rehab in the US, he spent the rest of his career bouncing between the UK, the US, Canada, and even New Zealand, playing for ever-more anonymous teams. Justin’s sexuality had become an open secret by the late ’80s. When he did come out of the closet, in an interview in 1990, he spoke about affairs with male MPs.

Fashanu needed money and that the tabloids could offer him that in return for ever-more salacious details about his love life. However, he was, in effect, searching for his identity. The documentary

features interviews with John Fashanu shot specifically for the film. John talks openly about his successful effort to stop his brother from joining him as a player at Wimbledon as he recovered from injury. The week after the story broke, John gave an exclusive interview entitled “John Fashanu: My Gay Brother Is an Outcast” and followed that up with more homophobic comments to the press. The two brothers who had once been so very close, barely spoke again. While John later admitted that he regretted many of the things he said yet this interview remains a conflicted part in Justin’s story. John later said that he didn’t think that Justin was gay after all and that his brother was merely seeking attention. The two brothers were both seeking acceptance, validation, fame and a sense of identity. Despite the personal nature of the tragedy, the film is also about a time when homosexuality was not acceptable behavior.

We see a man constantly in conflict with himself, almost to the point of self-sabotage and a gifted player and magnetic personality who couldn’t find any peace. The documentary is a fascinating story of outsized highs and lows told in straightforward but tightly woven chronological form and against a background of bullying and bigotry in football. 

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