Moving on from machismo: is noxious masculinity finally receding from sport?

If there was a defining sporting moment of 2022, aside from the obvious one of Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup (while wearing an incongruous bisht, giving off strong vibes of someone about to get their hair washed at the salon), it was surely the tears and hand-clasping of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Laver Cup.

After Federer had played his last competitive match – teaming up with Nadal in doubles – the two sat and watched as the screens of London’s O2 Arena flashed highlights of the Swiss’s iconic career. Ellie Goulding belted out a ballad. Lights strobed. Federer did one of those hiccup-cries kids do. His pinkie finger moved towards Nadal’s. The Spaniard’s eyes were red; Federer’s nose was giving Rudolph with a coke habit. Pretty soon their shoulders were heaving in sync.

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Sport is obviously a pursuit of passion and emotion. It’s all of the feelings. Bitter disappointment at a penalty shootout loss. Euphoria at saving three match points. It’s the boiling anger towards a tyrannical referee. And Federer was already known as a sensitive guy, but it was nonetheless an extremely potent scene. Two of the greatest sportsmen of all time, overtly – not sheepishly, not ironically – showing a vulnerability most often still characterised as effeminate. When asked about the moment Federer described it as “beautiful” and “a secret thank you” to his great rival and friend.

Follow enough sport and there’s a noticeable shift from the kind of boorish machismo that boys and men are insidiously socialised to adopt; the virulent hyper-aggression that leads to full prisons and societal breakdown outside of sports arenas, and red cards and smashed rackets within them. Undoubtedly a tedious “no homo” locker-room bro culture still exists (which would no doubt have perplexed the ancient Greek male athletes who came up with the Olympics and were not infrequently pro-homo), but there seems to be a definite turning of the tide.

Along with technological advancement in sport, there’s been a huge cultural change in recent times. Back in 2008 when Fabio Capello banned ketchup from the England canteen, the tabloids responded as though the lads had been forcibly castrated, as though tomato sauce represented the manly blood of battle. Now, clubs have staff psychologists. Perhaps it was always the way that exaggerated manliness would fall by the wayside when footballers evolved from kicking a pig’s bladder to wearing GPS sports bras.

There are certain standout turning points. Michael Jordan’s collapsing in grief over his late father; Maradona snogging his teammates. In the UK, one thinks of David Beckham in a sarong. Perhaps the photograph of him wearing his long hair swept up in an alice band, underneath which was the cut he acquired from Alex Ferguson kicking a boot at him, was a visual metonymic changing of the guard. A decade later and, though Fifa corruption resulted in the most recent World Cup taking place in a country where homosexuality is illegal, we had Louis van Gaal kissing Memphis Depay. We had Olivier Giroud holding Kylian Mbappé in his arms. Morocco’s players danced joyfully on the pitch with their mothers. (Think of that last one as the advancement of players showing their kids off at a season’s end, which, while wholesome, is always a controlled display rather than raw burst of emotion).

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in tears and holding hands following Federer’s final match before retirement last September.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in tears and holding hands following Federer’s final match before retirement last September. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Opening up about mental health issues in men’s sport has also become normalised – it was no small thing when the most successful Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps, talked about his history of suicidal ideation. In tennis, Andy Murray – who famously wept at Wimbledon – was credited by Nick Kyrgios’s mother for his intervention when the Scot noticed self-harm scars on her son’s arms.

One could argue that the rise of women’s sports has had an influence. Women’s football, in particular, has boomed in popularity – especially with the Lionesses’ Euros triumph. Crowds are friendlier, more welcoming, less pugilistic and more diverse. This global growth in women’s sport has provided a refreshing change and the opportunity of an alternative: high quality, highly competitive, often heated and combative sport – without an undercurrent of dickishness and shithousery.

Noxious masculinity hasn’t been eradicated entirely – not in sport, not in society. Cristiano Ronaldo might market himself as a modern man, all threaded eyebrows and flashy veneers, but he has the demeanour of the dude in the gym who offers unsolicited advice to women. There’s been mass support for the coming out of, among others, football’s Jake Daniels and rugby union’s Nick McCarthy; but there are still homophobic chants aimed towards Chelsea fans, and in recent times the Danish tennis prodigy Holger Rune yelled “faggot” on the court.

There are still the ultras, throwing beer and kicking the shit out of each other; but there is also a video in which an emotional Messi pleads with them to stop. Meanwhile, who would have thought that grown men would be repurposing the lyrics of an Atomic Kitten song to serenade Gareth Southgate about how he turns them on?

At my club, Liverpool, there are free tampons in the bathrooms and a manager who flirts with a male translator, and though I’d quite like Darwin Núñez to stop shanking his shots somewhere west of the Sahara, I’m comforted by the thought that back in the dressing room, Andy Robertson’s there, stroking his hair, whispering consoling words in his ear. Big Virg tenderly lifting a chamomile tea to his lips. Thiago gently rubbing his back. And a text from Rodge and Rafa: “Hang in there bud, we got you x.”