It has been almost a year since Josh Cavallo announced he is gay, but even now he still struggles to comprehend the far-reaching impact his announcement has had – especially as he has begun to speak out on major issues, notably the Qatar World Cup.
Since making that life-changing decision in October 2021, Cavallo has become one of the most recognizable names and faces in world football, as well as becoming something of an icon.
The Adelaide United star was recently named “Man of the Year” at an awards ceremony hosted by Attitude Magazine, Europe’s largest LGBTQ magazine publication. It was the culmination of a whirlwind year that started with what he describes as the beginning of a new chapter in his life.
“It was huge for me,” Cavallo tells CNN Sport. “To come out, it was a lot for my family, my friends and it was a huge step forward.
“I just didn’t know what to expect … and I just took it as best as I could and I ran with it, and this is who I am.
“I didn’t want to hide anymore and I wanted to show everyone who Josh Cavallo the person is. To see that I’m affecting and helping people in their everyday lives.
“I’m walking in the streets of London and getting stopped. I’ve only been to London twice now and I’m like: ‘Wow, I’m all the way from Australia and what I did was via social media,’ and to see the impact it’s had from people on the other side of the globe is absolutely phenomenal.”
A year on, Cavallo remains the only openly gay top-flight male footballer in the world – he plays for Adelaide United in Australia’s A League – but his decision inspired Jake Daniels, a forward for English second division club Blackpool, to come out in May of this year.
Cavallo admits he did not know what the reaction would be to his announcement, and even though there have been negative comments, for every hateful message he says he receives, there are 100 supportive ones.
Though he experienced concerns ahead of publicly coming out, he says the overwhelming feeling was being “emotionally pleased” that he would no longer be “hiding and living in that fear.”
“It was just the uncertainty, seeing that there was no active gay footballer that’s come out before and there was no plan with it,” he recalls.
“I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how people were going to react, there was a lot of uncertainty and that’s something that I struggled with growing up and why it took me so long to become the person I am.
“I wanted to be that person that, you know, people look at now and say: ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool. I want to do that. I want to do what Josh is doing,’ and I want it to be inclusive and quite influential.
“It’s great to see the people now in the football industry, the referees and people in sport coming out and referring to my story and saying I had an influence on them. It’s just absolutely phenomenal that it’s had that impact.”
Cavallo names Lionel Messi as one of his inspirations on the pitch growing up, but he says he looked up to Justin Fashanu for inspiration in his personal life.
Fashanu became the first openly gay professional footballer after coming out in 1990 while playing in the English top flight, but the backlash he suffered eventually led him to take his own life eight years later.
“To see that story end in such a sad way, it did hurt me and it was like I didn’t want people to get that perspective on it,” says Cavallo.
“It is so great to be gay. It is so great to be a footballer and to be comfortable in your own skin. Why aren’t we embracing that? And I knew I had the chance to change that.”
In a now deleted post on his official Twitter account, Casillas wrote: “I hope I’ll be respected: I’m gay.” In response, former Barcelona captain Carles Puyol wrote: “The time has come to tell our story, Iker.”
Casillas, who has two children with his former wife, deleted the post shortly after it was sent and later apologized, as did Puyol. The original tweet came amid gossip within Spanish media which has linked Casillas to multiple women since his divorce.
Cavallo, who tweeted criticism of the the pair at the time, says the trivialization of such an important topic does a disservice to those around the world who face persecution for their sexuality.
“It’s hard for people to understand when they don’t experience it,” he says.
“You get a lot of messages via social media of people in countries like Qatar and they say: ‘Josh, please help me. I want to come out, I want to be myself but they’re going to criminalize me. I’m going to get the death penalty.
“When you hear stuff like that, it breaks your heart because they’re the things that everyday people go through in these countries.
“There are 69 countries in the world that still criminalize this, so it is a huge, important topic and to see icons of the game making fun out of that and mocking my own tribe, it does hurt me and offend me because there are a lot of people that are fighting for their lives just to be comfortable with who they are in their own skin.”
Cavallo says the exchange between Casillas and Puyol proves football still has “got a long way to go” to eradicate homophobia, even if the sport has recently made steps in the right direction.
“Something that could be an exchange of a joke or a mockery is quite hurtful to people like us because we go through our lives so strong, finding our identity of who we are and we finally build up the courage to be who we are and be comfortable in our own skin,” he says.
“Then you see people and legends of the game doing that it is quite hurtful because we look up to these people. These are the people we dream of playing against or playing with alongside.
“So to see people like that do things like that and [make] silly jokes like that is quite hurtful to myself especially and my community.”
After announcing his sexuality last year Cavallo said that he would be “scared” to play in Qatar, where same-sex activity is prohibited.
In response to Cavallo’s fears at the time, Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of the tournament’s organizing committee, told CNN: “On the contrary, we welcome him here in the state of Qatar, we welcome him to come and see even prior to the World Cup … Nobody feels threatened here, nobody feels unsafe.”
“I know personally, if I go there, I will be protected because I’m in the public eye,” Cavallo told CNN anchor Amanda Davies.
“But it’s not me that I’m worried about. It’s those ones that are messaging me. It’s those people that aren’t in the public eye that are scared to even be themselves and walk the streets.”
“To see that we’re heading to a country that’s criminalizing people like myself … It’s quite concerning,” added Cavallo.
CNN has reached out to Qatar’s World Cup organizers for comment on Cavallo’s comments, but did not get a response.
Earlier this year, former England international David Beckham become one of the most high-profile ambassadors for the World Cup in Qatar.
Beckham has previously been widely criticized for accepting the role and Cavallo says he would like to see Beckham using his platform to support the LGBTQ community instead.
“Look, I don’t know David personally, so I can’t really comment on him and his actions,” Cavallo says. “But having allies in the game is really helpful and when I came out to my changing room, my teammates and to see the reception – every single one of them is an ally of me.
“It made me so proud on the inside and it makes you really emotional because it’s something that I struggled for a long time. So it has such a significant impact on myself and my community.
“If someone like David Beckham with his platform does get around us and becomes an ally that we we are wanting him to be, it is really helpful.
“If he could take that next step and show what he means to the LGBTQ community, that would be fantastic.”