In the spring of 2001, Thomas Berling became the first Norwegian male top football player to stand out as gay.
A week later he resigned.
The former Lyn, Nardo and G19 national team player had had enough of what he experienced as vicious gay jokes in the locker room.
– I can not stand the shit I know follows, he said to NRK in April 2001.
– Many of the jokes I heard in both Nardo and Lyn were so vicious that it was simply not fun to go to training, he added.
Berling left Lyn and the 1st division and ended his career in Drøbak / Frogn and the 3rd division the following year, but then the joy of football was gone.
Now, as a 41-year-old, he is no longer associated with football, but he reacted strongly when he on Sunday night registered what Kristiansund player Flamur Kastrati (28) had said to Vålerenga coach Dag-Eilev Fagermo without being punished.
“Fucking sweep,” said the KBK player, which was caught by the TV team present at the elite league match. When asked during the break by Eurosport what he had said, he confirmed the statement.
Wanted red card
Berling does not react most to the fact that someone can be made to say “fucking sweeper” in the heat of battle, but that the statement was allowed to go unpunished.
– That it is said is something that can happen, it is not that I am responsible for it, but I react to the fact that Kastrati does not get a red card when it is discovered. The regulations are clear that incitement to sexual orientation should be equated with racism, and I feel quite confident that he would have been expelled if he said something racist. That is why I react, he says to NRK.
Referee Tom Harald Hagen said on Sunday night that he did not accept Kastrati’s statement, but that the KBK player would have been sent off immediately if he had heard it.
Think things are better
The management in Kristiansund will wait for the conclusion from the Norwegian Football Association, before they decide what they want to do next.
– As long as the case is being processed at NFF and in the club, Flamur Kastrati will not participate in training or in matches, the club writes in a press release.
Despite Sunday’s event, Thomas Berling believes things have improved in football since he resigned 18 years ago.
– This should not have been a theme in football in 2020, but I think things have improved. I have nephews who are junior players, and although I do not know the jargon in their team, the way they have been towards me, as a gay man, has been zero problem. I think the incident on Sunday is about an individual episode, he says.
On Monday night, Kastrati said in an interview with VG that he was very sorry and that he did not know that “sweeping” is a derogatory expression about gays, but that he thought it meant something like “nonsense”.
Berling does not buy that explanation.
– The excuse that he did not know what it means is too thin. It’s ok that he’s sorry, but if you do not know what “sweeping” means as a 28-year-old, you really have not followed, he says.
Berling has not been involved in football since he left for Drøbak / Frogn in 2002. He now lives at Sollihøgda between Oslo and Hønefoss, and works in the insurance industry.
– Easier to stand out
He tells NRK that in 2000 he predicted that the first active player would appear as gay in 2005, and that he therefore does not want to bet again now.
– I will not go out on it since I was so wrong then. That said, things are different. If a player had appeared now, there would have been no problem. The main challenge is that there would be a tremendous media pressure, he says.
Many people think that there are so few gay players in top football because many gays quit while they are in their teens. Berling thinks it is true that many – like himself – put up, but is in no doubt that there are active gay players in both Norwegian and international top football.
– There are quite a few examples of players who come out after their careers. The most obvious is Thomas Hitzlsperger. He had a great career, including as a German national team player, and came out just after his career. Another was Robbie Rogers, who came out after he quit, but made a comeback, he says.
– Dare not
The leader of the Norwegian supporter alliance, Gjert Moldestad, has no doubt that incitement is the main reason why many in football refuse to stand up.
– I often get questions about why there are no open football players in top football in Norway or in the world in general, and the answer is actually quite simple. It’s because those players who know they like someone of the same sex do not dare to be themselves in football. That is the consequence when we do not take such things seriously and have a language that is harassing and provocative, says Moldestad, who is himself gay, to NRK.
He has no doubt that statements like “fucking sweeps” can affect.
– We can imagine that there is a player in the 16-17 age group in Kristiansund who bets on football and understands that he likes someone of the same sex. When he then sees that the big profiles in the club use such expressions, it is clear that one asks questions such as: “Is there something wrong with me?”. “Is it like I’m not welcome because I’m gay?” “Is there no room for me?” We just have to keep working on this, says Moldestad.
Ready to support
Thomas Berling emphasizes that it is important that the first Norwegian top player who stands out has solid backing and that he is mentally prepared.
– When I quit and came out as a 20-year-old, it was without a network in the back. Then it became very tough to stand in the storm. I hope that someone can come out and take a role as a role model for younger players, and if someone does, I am more than willing to support him, he says.
NRK expert Carl-Erik Torp, who has a long career behind him in top football, is clear that the incidents of racism and now – homohets – is more about a societal problem than a football problem.
At the same time, he emphasizes that it is important to distinguish between “ordinary” arguing and frustration – and hets.
– It is not uncommon for you to be pissed off and call each other things on the court, but the beauty of the sport is that you can fight and be pissed at each other, but that you in the locker room afterwards take each other by the hand and are done with it, says he.