Bravery is an essential quality for any footballer. As a defender, putting your body on the line and your head where it hurts is the minimum expectation.
There’s no doubting Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jørgensen’s mentality - it’s been plain to see since his debut at Molineux in September. However, to add to the clichés above, it’s not just on the pitch that’s he’s willing to stand up and be counted.
Perhaps fuelled by a career that has taken him across Europe, and by the recent birth of his son Axel, Zanka has a huge appetite for life and learning. “When it comes to these things, I just can’t shut up,” he tells us after a training session at Jersey Road when asked about the Rainbow Laces campaign. “If there’s a topic up for debate, I’ll speak my mind.”
During our chat, the 31-year-old underlined the importance of the initiative in creating discussion about, and ultimately acceptance of, the LGBTQ+ community. Football is for everyone.
First of all, a massive congratulations to you and Nanna on the birth of your son, Axel! How are you finding fatherhood?
It’s good! It’s different, but nice. Every day represents a new stage and a new challenge. We’re enjoying our new role as parents and settling into our new life.
We have a few friends who live in London, and my agent is right around the corner, so we’ve got a good security net around us. It’s not a long flight from Denmark, either, so with COVID restrictions relaxing a little it’s easier for family to come over and see the little one.
What are your first impressions of London?
I used to come down a lot when I was playing for Huddersfield, so I already had friends here and knew the city a little bit. We found a place in Holland Park, it’s nice and quiet and has a lot of specialty shops. We love walking through Notting Hill, there are so many nice buildings to look at and things to do.
We have a border terrier, Clyde – he’s got a lot of personality! Our little companion. He turned five the day after my son was born, so it’ll be easy to remember birthdays! He’s going to join us over the next few weeks, we’re really looking forward to that.
You’ve been racking up the airmiles since 2014 having played in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Turkey and Germany. Moving from one country to another must present its fair share of challenges…
Most football players all start with the idea that you’ll be the one guy who stays at the same club forever. Overall, I’ve played nine seasons in Copenhagen, so I have had that feeling in a way. Sometimes it’s disappointing when things don’t turn out exactly the way you wanted, but as a couple, and now as a family, it’s going to be nice to be able look back and relive these experiences in our minds.
It’s been a lot, but I really love it. It’s great to use football in that sense, to get to experience different countries and cultures. Turkey was very different! Istanbul is an amazing city, I’d highly recommend a trip there. It’s a metropolis, a clash of every culture on earth. It’s the old Constantinople, it used to be the gateway to Asia. You can just feel all of that culture and the history that’s played out in the city. The food is amazing, as is the weather. There’s not much to dislike! There are always positives to take from wherever you live.
You were born Mathias Jørgensen but everyone calls you ‘Zanka’! Why is that?
Johan Lange, my Youth Team coach when I was around ten, had seen the movie Cool Runnings. He’s the Sporting Director at Aston Villa now – there’s a fact for you! We were travelling back from training and had to fit a lot of people in the car – I was sitting in front of the passenger seat and it looked like I was on a bobsleigh! He decided from that point onwards I’d be called Zanka, and it just stuck! It’s only my mum, sister and fiancé that call me Mathias now!
What have you made of our start to the campaign?
I don’t think we’ve always got what we deserve, but the Premier League is brutal in that sense. You have to stay in every game for 90 plus minutes to make sure you get something.
I’m enjoying every moment. I’m getting into the different tactical aspects; Thomas’ wishes and Brian’s defensive schemes that I know pretty well from our time together in Copenhagen. It hasn’t been too much of a change from what I’m used to, which has made the transition easier for me. When you get the chance, you have to perform. It’s been better in some games than others, but I’m pretty happy with the way it’s played out so far.
The game against Everton was our dedicated Rainbow Laces fixture. You’re a vocal ally for the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a broad question, but how much of a problem is homophobia in football?
We still have foul language in stadiums. While these words aren’t often pointed directly at members of the LGBTQ community, if you identify that way and hear such comments, it’s going to hurt you. We would never accept similar behaviour if it was racist abuse and that’s where we have to progress in the years to come.
In an interview with the BBC, psychologist and former NBA player John Amaechi said the following: “There's a big difference between being not-racist and being anti-racist. I know it doesn't seem like it. I know that both of these things seem equally good, but they're not. Make everybody clear where you stand.” How important is it to apply the same principle to homophobia?
Awareness is so important. It’s up to each of us, every day, to highlight homophobia. If somebody makes the mistake of using a word that’s homophobic, ask them to use another word. I might not be offended, but somebody else might be. It’s going to take time for people to get rid of bad habits; language is instilled over years, centuries even. Everyone has probably used offensive language at one point or another without actually meaning any harm.
That’s the only way to educate. We can come down on people who say something offensive, but education is more effective than punishment. That said, if it’s obvious abuse, we have to come down on it hard. We’ve got to get to the grassroots level and teach our children that homophobic language isn’t acceptable. You’d never direct homophobic language at a stranger on the street, so why is it okay in a football stadium? Football is a game of feelings and emotions. When feelings run high, we might show the bad side of ourselves, but that still doesn’t make it okay. We’ve got to keep calling it out when we hear it – that’s the only way we’ll stop such language being used.
"It’s up to each of us, every day, to highlight homophobia. We’ve got to keep calling it out"
Football is a microcosm of wider society. With that in mind, how important is it that the game sets a positive example when it comes to tackling homophobia?
The Rainbow Laces campaign is really important; football is for everyone and we’ve got to get behind that message. What people do in their private lives has nothing to do with the game of football. It’s 2021, in society being part of the LGBTQ community is accepted, so why should football be any different?
Education comes largely from teachers and coaches, but role models are also important. If positive messages come from those close to you, and are then reinforced by someone you idolise or enjoy watching on a football pitch, that can make a big difference.
You helped write an article on homophobia for the Danish Football Players’ Association. Tell us more about that…
This was back in 2016, the point that Denmark was really starting to look at racism in football and question how bad the level of abuse was. Personally, I’m never going to be offended by comments about my skin colour – the way I’m raised, it doesn’t matter to me – but for somebody else it might be offensive and that got me thinking.
We had 25,000 people in a crowd chanting something homophobic, everyone could hear it, it was apparent, but nobody was doing anything about it. I raised that point. There was a different part of society being discriminated against but it was being treated like nothing. People identify in lots of different ways and they all need to feel comfortable when they come to play grassroots football, Sunday league or professional. Whatever I do with my private life, it shouldn’t be scrutinised. People need to be able to pursue their hobby, whether that’s watching football or playing football, without feeling as though they’re being attacked directly or indirectly by other people’s outbursts.
"People need to be able to pursue their hobby, whether that’s watching football or playing football, without feeling as though they’re being attacked"
You’ve clearly identified the platform you have and seek to make a positive impact. Have you always been this way?
I think it’s just me being nosy! [Laughs] When it comes to these things, I just can’t shut up. If there’s a topic up for debate, I’ll speak my mind. It’s not like I’ve ever sat down and thought: ‘What’s wrong with the football world? Okay, I’m going to start championing that cause.’ The issue of homophobia in football came up in a conversation and I just pointed out the obvious: it cannot be right. I do have friends who are part of the LGBTQ community, and I try to put myself in their shoes.
If you put two babies next to each other, they don’t see race, they just see another human being. That’s one of the most important things I can teach my son: be inclusive and open-minded with everyone you meet. People have different reasons for the way they are, you need to talk with them to gain a better understanding.
Adelaide United’s Joshua Cavallo recently announced that he is gay. After his statement, you Tweeted: “This is a major milestone in our sport, something that you will always be remembered for. I salute you.” Do you believe Joshua’s decision to make his sexuality public will be a catalyst for change?
This is becoming bigger. Joshua’s story is an example that people are getting more confident and more comfortable with being the way that they feel. There’s a lot of talent that gets lost in the system because, if you’re in a youth environment and homophobic language is being used, you’re not going to want to turn up day after day. There are a lot of young people who miss out on football, the thing they enjoy most in life, because another part of their identity is being hammered.
The Rainbow Laces game is massive. Some laces, a captain’s armband and a nice cover of a matchday programme might look like a small thing, but it makes a massive difference in creating awareness. Each time that people are made more aware of the LGBTQ community, it becomes more normalised. When it becomes more normalised, people carry these lessons with them and discuss at home, in workplaces and in classrooms.
In some places it will be further along, in others it will be further behind – that’s just the way the world works. Football is clearly a bit behind but the efforts are in place to make up for that and I think it’s only going to improve.
A major milestone: Adelaide United’s Joshua Cavallo recently decided to make his sexuality public
Follow Zanka on Twitter and Instagram @mzanka