Anton Hysén looks every inch the modern footballer. The 20-year-old Swede has his initials tattooed behind one ear and his parents’ names on each forearm. On his left arm, in particularly elaborate lettering, is: "UNWA". This is Hysén’s tribute to Liverpool, his birthplace, and the terrace anthem of his favourite club – You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Hysén, the son of former Liverpool defender and Swedish international Glenn Hysén, is currently walking very much alone. This month, the left-sided midfielder came out as Sweden’s first openly gay male footballer. He is only the second high-level footballer to come out in the world, ever. The first, Justin Fashanu, revealed he was gay in 1990, found himself shunned by the footballing world, including his brother, John, and hanged himself eight years later. (John later expressed his remorse.)
A generation on, when gay men and women play prominent roles in every other kind of entertainment, it looks increasingly bizarre that world football has no openly gay players – apart from Hysén. Although, as he points out, he currently plays in the fourth tier of Swedish football, working in the local Volvo factory to support himself, Hysén’s honesty about his sexuality is a big deal. His family is a footballing dynasty in Sweden; Hysén’s older brother, Tobias, is a Swedish international; their father, Glenn, was a tough defender who remains a celebrity in Sweden. In Britain, it would be rather like John Terry having a footballing son who came out. Perhaps most significantly of all, Hysén, like the English cricketer Steven Davies, who came out last month, made his declaration at the start of his career.
Still the exception: Fans of the left-leaning FC St. Pauli holding up banners saying: “St. Pauli is gay. Tolerance & Respect” St. Pauli fans were the first to ban racist, sexist & homophobic chants in their stadium and the club had the first openly gay president in pro football.
A bouncy, articulate athlete who speaks excellent English with an American twang picked up during a year at college there, Hysén is utterly at ease with his decision when we meet at his family’s apartment in Gothenburg before his team, Utsiktens BK, play their first big match of the new Swedish season. He has no time for gay stereotypes. As he politely puts it: "I’m not a big Pride person. There’s nothing wrong with Pride but it’s just not my thing."
His story began, however, at Stockholm’s Pride march in 2007, when his dad made a surprising appearance. It was controversial because the gay community assumed Glenn was a homophobe after he threw a punch at a man who groped him in the toilets at Frankfurt airport in 2001. But this macho football legend confounded critics by talking with great empathy of "a 16-year-old who didn’t want to come out because he feared what his teammates would think". No one realised at the time, but he was referring to his son. "He said, ‘I’m doing it for you,’" remembers Hysén.