Josh Cavallo On Why He Decided The Time Had Come To Show His True Colours - Men's Health Magazine Australia

Josh Cavallo On Why He Decided The Time Had Come To Show His True Colours

Late last year, Adelaide United midfielder Josh Cavallo became the only active openly gay professional footballer in the world. Here, Cavallo reveals why he decided the time had come to show his true colours.

Professional Soccer Player Josh Cavallo, worked closely with Ralph Lauren for the global launch of the RLX CLARUS® Polo shirt, the world’s first-ever high-performance cotton apparel. Image: Jody Pachniuk.

Adelaide United FC’s annual awards night last June should have been the best night of Josh Cavallo’s career, maybe even his life. Cavallo had won the A-League Rising Star award, given to the club’s most promising young player. It was the night his childhood dreams really started to take shape. The night all his hard work and dedication were validated. A milestone on his path to becoming an elite footballer.

But instead of feeling joy, Cavallo felt anguish. Instead of celebrating with his family and friends after the ceremony, he found himself alone in his apartment, crying himself to sleep. It was another night when instead of being himself he was forced to be someone else. Another night in which his life felt like a lie. 

“That was an achievement all professional athletes want to accomplish,” says the 22-year-old, who’s talking to me from his childhood bedroom in Melbourne’s Mordialloc. “Everyone was ecstatic that I got this award. I was happy on the outside, but on the inside, I was really sad, because I couldn’t show them the real Josh, who I truly am. That really hurt. And that was the moment where it sparked. I wanted to change. I wanted to be myself and let the world know who Josh Cavallo is.”

In October, four months after the awards night, Cavallo decided to announce his sexuality to the world via a moving, heartfelt Instagram video. In doing so he became the only top-flight player currently playing to come out as gay, following in the footsteps of Englishman Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990. Sadly, Fashanu would commit suicide eight years later. Among the Australian codes, Cavallo joined former rugby league star Ian Roberts, who declared his sexual orientation in 1995, as the only players to come out while playing at the highest level.

Cavallo’s announcement made news around the world. He was inundated by messages of support from fans and fellow footballers, his post receiving over 700,000 comments in 30 minutes. The response overwhelmed him. More importantly, it inspired others. In May 17-year-old Blackburn FC player Jake Daniels came out, crediting Cavallo as his inspiration. More recently, two professional football referees in Scotland came out, again citing Cavallo’s move as the catalyst for their decision. 

At this stage it’s just a trickle. But Cavallo is no longer alone. And now, at least, those that might one day follow him have something he never had: a role model.

“I wanted to take that next step and be myself and be that first person that does this,” says Cavallo, who as well as mountains of fan support has also received backing from the corporate world, working with Ralph Lauren on the global launch of the RLX CLARUS Polo Shirt. “Justin Fashanu was the only person I had to look up to and it didn’t end well. So, I was like, I want to be that for these kids growing up. There are kids now that are nine, 10 years old that could find out they’re gay and say, Okay, I don’t belong in football, I don’t belong in sport. Now they might look at it and say, Oh, there’s Josh. I can definitely be successful and play football.”

It feels appropriate to be talking to Cavallo, who’s rugged up in a hoodie and slippers due to the chilly Melbourne weather, in his childhood bedroom, a monument to a young boy’s aspiration. There’s a print of Lionel Messi on the wardrobe behind him that’s been there since he was 12 years old, while a retired ‘JCAVS’ personalised number plate he got when he was 18 sits on a set of drawers. Back when Cavallo occupied this room his dreams were of the simple, ‘boy’s own’ variety: make it to the Premier League, play for the Socceroos, be the best player he could. None of that’s changed. Now, though, he has a role that’s perhaps bigger and more important than any he could have envisaged lying here on his bed all those years ago.

To forge a path rather than follow one takes courage. In football, where misplaced machismo and sometimes toxic fan fervour can reveal the uglier side of human nature, you inevitably subject yourself to abuse of the most deplorable and debasing kind. It takes fortitude to cop that and to call it out. But really, what makes Cavallo’s case so unique and, in 2022, so difficult to square, is that what should be the most straightforward thing in the world – to be yourself – is the hardest. But hey, somebody had to do it, right? Wrong. Cavallo chose to do it. Here’s why.

Josh cavallo men's health australia august 2022

SWEATER AND TROUSERS BY BALLY. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JODY PACHNIUK, STYLING BY ALISON COTTON.

YOUNG GUN

My childhood was really good. We live near the beach so that’s always been my safe haven. I could go there and just switch off, no matter what was happening, good or bad. My family have always been absolutely phenomenal and, as a kid, my grandfather was my best friend. Mum and Dad had a shop at Chadstone Shopping Centre, so they would be working hard with that and I would be dropped at my grandparents’ house. I’m half Maltese, so we called them nannu and nanna. That’s grandpa and grandma. My nannu became like a father figure for me. He was just my
go-to man. Unfortunately, he’s not with us today but spiritually he’s always there, guiding me. I have a tattoo on my arm. In Maltese it says, Mistrieħ faċli, Nannu. That means Rest easy, Nannu. He’s a big part of who I am today.

Before football came along, I played tennis. And I was madly in love with it. The only reason I started playing football was because one day when I was eight years old my older brother and my cousin were playing keepings off in the backyard. I was playing tennis by myself against the wall and I got so upset because they weren’t involving me in their game. I remember I dropped the tennis racquet, picked up the soccer ball and never went back.

I got into the system pretty early. I was playing in the state team from under 13s, so it was only a matter of four or five years before I started hitting the best players in Victoria, then after that the best in Australia. I was fortunate I did really well at Nationals and I got picked up by an A-League side straight away. It all happened really quickly. I had to grow up in an environment where everyone was much older than I was. At 16, I was training with 27-30-year-olds, so you’re forced to mature pretty fast. 

When I was younger, I loved kicking the ball. That was the only thing I did. I played upfront. I was a striker. And then when things got more serious, I found myself in the midfield, because I liked controlling the game, everything going through me. I like feeding someone and assisting them to score. I get a buzz out of that. In the last couple of years, I’ve also been playing on the left side of midfield. So, whether that’s at left defence or left attack, it just depends on the coach at the time. 

In Italian, Cavallo means horse. On the football field everyone says, “You’re like a horse because you don’t stop running”. At school, I was always cross-country champ. I represented Victoria in running. On the football field, when it gets to the 60 or 70th minute and everyone’s getting tired, that’s when I’m just ramping up my engine.

Josh cavallo men's health australia august 2022

JACKET BY ZEGNA; PANTS BY VENROY; TEE BY BONDS. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JODY PACHNIUK, STYLING BY ALISON COTTON.

LIVING A LIE

I was about 16 years old when I realised I might be gay. It was confusing. I was like, Am I into girls? There was something that just wasn’t clicking for me with them. I would love to hang out, but nothing would really happen from it. I wouldn’t find myself sexually attracted to them. 

Growing up in my household, I always felt that you have a wife, you have kids, you have a big family. So, it was very difficult to see a future this way. Right now, one of my best friends used to be my girlfriend. We were together from Year 10 onwards. I was hanging out with her last night and we were having a little giggle about that. It’s really nice to have those memories to look back on. And it’s a positive memory, not a bad memory.

I never dated guys back then. There was a long period of me trying to understand, Is this what I want? Obviously, my first experience with a guy was a bit later on. It felt like it was something I’d been missing my whole life. It just felt right. That’s when I knew that I’m not going to be straight. I think I’m going to be gay.

Hiding it was exhausting. It was something that I had to do 24 hours a day. It wasn’t just at home. First thing in the morning I’d be training with the team. It’s there in the changeroom when you’re getting changed. When you’re on the field you’re thinking about it. At the drinks break the boys might drop a comment like, “Oh, who were you out with last night?” Or, “Who’s your girlfriend?” These conversations are going through my head while I’m dribbling and trying to kick the ball. People aren’t trying to offend you because they don’t know what’s going on. It’s just changeroom banter. You become really good at memorising things to say to prevent certain conversations, or quickly changing the subject to something else. 

And then you go home and it’s the same thing. Your parents ask you who you’re seeing. Or who you’re hanging out with and you can’t tell them the truth. Because the truth is you’re hanging out with a guy. You literally have to make up lies. And sometimes they don’t add up and you look silly. Then your friends are like, Why is he lying? Does he want to be my friend? It breaks trust. I didn’t mean to do that to people, but unfortunately, with what I was dealing with, that’s the best I could do. 

Josh cavallo men's health australia august 2022

JACKET BY COTTON ON; PANTS BY RALPH LAUREN. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JODY PACHNIUK, STYLING BY ALISON COTTON.

TELLING THE WORLD

I had thought I was going to wait until after my football career finished to come out. I couldn’t see the two worlds together until after that awards night. The first people I told were my family. I wrote this really long letter that I left under the couch before I drove back to Adelaide. I wanted to write down every little thing and I wanted my mum and dad and my brother to read it together. I felt like that was the best way I could deliver the news without breaking down. It was very emotional. I reread that letter about 400 million times.

I didn’t expect the reaction I got from them. They were happy for me and glad that I was finally comfortable in my own skin. It was something I hid for 21 years and I was a bit like, Wow, why did I hide it for that long? Because they were with me. They were on Team Josh the whole time. But they were a bit sad that it took me so long to tell them. I said, “Look, it’s a bit different when you’re going through this. You have to be ready yourself before you can start telling other people.” 

After my family, the next people I told were my coaches. Ross Aloisi is the assistant coach at Adelaide. He’s a pretty special guy for me. He’s the type of coach that’s very hard – what he says goes – and he’s been a massive mentor for me. He’s the first person I had a bond with at Adelaide and I really saw him as a father figure when I first got to the club. I thought, I want to share this with him first.

So I remember I walked into the coaches’ office and I said, “Ross, I’ve got something I need to tell you”. And the first thing he said was, “Josh, you’re not going back to Melbourne. Your holidays are finished. What do you want?” I said, “No, Ross. This is personal. I’m going to be coming out as a gay footballer. This is me”. And he goes, “Is that it?” And I’m like, “What do you mean is that it?” And we both laughed. He said, “I don’t care who you love, if it’s a boy or girl, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re happy and you’re comfortable and you’re performing on the field, I don’t care.” And then the head coach, Carl [Veart], walked into the office. I told Carl and he had the same response. That just gave me so much confidence to become the new me.

After the conversation with them, I stepped out on the training field. Afterwards the coaches were like, “Is this the new Josh? You absolutely smashed training today.” It honestly felt like 20 kilos had been taken off my shoulders. After that, I was like, I’m ready to do this. I’m ready to tell the world. 

A couple of weeks later I told my teammates. We were in a huddle in the changeroom. Everyone was in there, all the staff, everyone from the club. I shared who I was and every single one of them gave me a big hug. I could feel their energy and the love in the room. They were so proud that I could take that step and do it. No one said, “Josh, I actually got that vibe from you”. I don’t give any hints away. No one saw it coming. 

What was fantastic in that changeroom was that five minutes after the meeting was over, I was talking football with my teammates again. It was something we accepted and moved on. I’m very thankful for the culture we have at Adelaide. I hope clubs around the world take their lead from our club.

I had already made the video. It was about three hours long and it was edited into a two-minute clip. Shooting it was the first time I was showing the public the real Josh. The fake Josh was coming off my shoulders. The armour I’ve worn all these years was coming off. I was struggling to get my words out. It was like I was learning to speak again. It was a really, really special moment for me. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.

It was only a few minutes after leaving the changeroom with my teammates that I got into my car and pressed post on the video. I was so excited to do it. When I pressed that post button, I felt like I’d already won the race. It didn’t matter to me how the public reacted, good or bad, or what happened next. I knew I’d already won the race because I could be myself and not have to lie anymore.

Josh cavallo men's health australia august 2022

SINGLET BY BONDS; PANTS BY ZEGNA. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JODY PACHNIUK, STYLING BY ALISON COTTON.

ZERO TO HERO

Since I came out, we’ve had a staff member in our team come out as well and I’ve been helping him through his journey. The messages I get from celebrities are fantastic, but the ones that touch my heart are from everyday people. I open my DMs and I have messages from mums, dads, grandparents, as well as kids saying, “You helped me come out”, or “You helped me feel included. I’m playing football again because of you”. People are telling me that my coming out stopped them from doing something really bad. This is actually saving lives. I don’t know these people personally, but I can offer them support and give them that virtual hug and show them that it is okay to be themselves. 

As a footballer, when you step onto the field, you don’t really see your surroundings. You’re just focused on the game. And it says a lot, because the first time I walked onto the field after coming out was the first time I’ve actually noticed the crowd’s reaction and it was absolutely phenomenal. That shows you how much of a positive reaction it had. But it did take me by surprise. 

Through my coming out we’ve created a Pride Round in the A-League led by Adelaide United. But even after the Pride Round, there were rainbow flags in the crowd all year long. And it wasn’t just at home. It was when we were playing away as well. It’s really exciting to see, because this time last year, none of the opposition fans would talk to me; they would boo me. But now, honestly, after the whistle goes, they all want to talk to me, they all want to get photos. This was a story greater than football and it’s nice to see that it’s touching people that aren’t involved with our club.

FIGHTING FOR OTHERS

Abuse from fans is going to be an ongoing issue but I use that as motivation. And the thing that always motivates me is the people that I’m doing this for. Whenever I do come across hate and negativity, all I have to do is open up my phone and see all the messages that are coming through. To know that there’s hundreds of thousands of people that I’m helping get through their day and be themselves is incredible. 

People can bring all the hate they want. It’s not stopping me, because at the end of the day, I’m saving lives through what I’m doing. And they’re in the crowd, drinking a beer and paying for a ticket to come and watch me. That’s the way I look at it. 

In football you’re going to come across abuse, whether you’re gay, straight, whether you miss a goal, miss a penalty, get a red card, get sent off, you’re going to come across hate. Not everyone’s going to like you, so I’ve accepted that that’s the way it is. 

Of course, it does matter, but the fact is, I can take it. Being the first one, I’m going to experience a lot of hate, but I’m taking the stigma away and I’m taking all that hate so that in five years’ time, that kid that’s growing up, that little Josh, does have someone to look up to and he’s not going to turn away from football or any sport he chooses. It’s unfortunate, but I have to go through this stuff to make it easier for the next generation.

Everyone has a different opinion on whether you should call out the abuse. For me, I would call it out because it’s not me that it will affect. It’s that little kid who’s looking through my Instagram and sees that photo, and thinks he wants to be like Josh Cavallo, but then he sees a negative comment and that might stop him. I always look at it through the eyes of others. I do think it’s important to call things out because it does stop once you do. I’ve had such an amazing reception from Melbourne Victory when I go there now, after the things that happened [Cavallo was abused by a minority of Victory fans at a game in January, which he called out on his Instagram account the next day]. Unfortunately it was one or two fans that made everyone look bad. You can’t control what’s out there but it is important to raise awareness and call it out when it happens.

A lot of professional athletes in Australia and around the world have reached out to me and asked for my advice. It’s their own journey to come out, at their own pace, but I’m here to be a helping hand for them. And not just athletes. I hope my story connects with everyone. I want to acknowledge that things can change, you can be different, you can be yourself and be happy. 

Josh cavallo men's health australia august 2022

PLAYING FREE

It’s only been eight months since I came out, but it feels like five years. In those eight months, I can’t tell you how much I’ve improved as a footballer. This was the first season I could actually let my hair down and be me and I’ve just
grown so much as a player. Now I can worry about scoring goals or assisting goals and playing well, instead of thinking about, What am I going to tell the guys in the changeroom? It’s a distraction that I don’t have anymore and that’s taking my game to the next level.

If I was lucky enough to represent Australia at the World Cup in Qatar it would be an incredible honour. But it does concern me, because for me to go to Qatar, I know there are different laws [homosexuality is criminalised in Qatar and punishable by death for Muslim men] and that my safety might be at risk. I could possibly be prosecuted just for being who I am. It’s concerning, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

When I step onto the field, I’m Josh Cavallo the footballer. I’m ready to show everyone what I’m capable of. Nothing changes for me. I’ve got a job to do. But to me, to be known as Josh Cavallo, the gay footballer, as well, they’re both positive things. I want to be a role model on and off the field.  

Pitch Perfect

In the off-season, Cavallo focuses on building strength and explosive power in his legs while stoking his aerobic capacity through long runs. “As a footballer, you’ve got to be lean and light and that’s what I aim to be,” he says. Use his workout to build top-flight strength and stamina.

Illustration: Justinas Alisaukas

Trap Bar deadlift (4 x 5)

Front squat (4 x 5)

Romanian deadlift (4 x 5)

Good Morning (4 x 5)

Pull-up (3 sets to failure)

Dip (3 sets to failure)

Distance runs – Cavallo works up to marathon distance in the off-season.

By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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