I had the opportunity to see a powerful Netflix documentary this weekend about the life and death of Justin Fashanu, once Britain’s most popular black footballer. I remember hearing the story as a teenager growing up in Nigeria but never really knew the details. The story is a tragic cocktail of betrayal, abandonment, pain and sadness.
Netflix’s “Forbidden Games – The John Fashanu story” is a deep and disturbing look at the troubled life of two brothers growing up in the harsh, racially charged atmosphere of 1970s and ’80s Britain.
Born to a Nigerian father and a Guyanese mother in 1961 in the London borough of Hackney, Justin and his younger brother John were put in foster care at ages four and three respectively after their parents split up and their father moved back to Nigeria.
Justin and John were eventually fostered by a white middle-class couple in Norfolk who took care of them and provided them with the stability of family life. In the documentary, this couple recalled how the brothers were two lovely little kids bursting with energy. But Justin never got over the fact that their mother gave them up. In the documentary, Pearl, their biological mother, said she didn’t have the means to look after the children after their father left and had no choice but to give them up to be fostered.
The documentary reminded us of Britain of the ’70s and ’80s when being black was a social stigma and the consequences were severe. Justin and his brother John were the only black children in an overwhelmingly white Norfolk village and experienced the cold reality of prejudice at the school playground. But Justin had a talent that made him shine, he was fast and quick with the football than any other kid. He had an athletic build and a charismatic personality. He quickly got noticed and made his debut when he was signed to Norwich FC, and eventually to Nottingham Forest in 1981, which marked the high point of his career as a professional footballer. He was transferred to Forest for a whopping £1million. The most expensive black player in English football history, up to that time.
But fame and fortune brought out previously latent attitudes in Justin, he became stubborn and arrogant, he would park his expensive cars in inappropriate places and would refuse to move it when asked to. Justin loved the fast life, money, cars and clubbing. These soon took a toll on his career as his performance dipped on the pitch. For such an expensive player, the expectations were high and the pressure was huge. Meanwhile the news was going round that Justin was frequenting gay bars in Nottingham, and in 1980s Britain, this was not something you would shout from the rooftops. The environment was hostile to homosexuals and Justin knew that his career would be jeopardised if he admitted being gay. His manager however, Brian Clough, a veteran football manager and homophobe, had had enough of Justin’s below expectation performance on the pitch and the rumours of him being gay was the final straw. Justin was sacked from the club, and marked the beginning of a slippery slope for him. He started to drift from one football club to the next, picked up a knee injury and at one point became a born-again christian.
Justin visited Nigeria to find is biological father but it wasn’t the visit he planned. He thought he would be going into his father’s arms wide open for him, but it was rather a disappointment and that was the first and last time he ever met with his biological father.
As Justin’s career slowed down, John’s (his younger brother) was picking up. John rose through the ranks to the top of the football tree when he got signed to Wimbledon in 1986 and eventually went on to play for England. John was now the face of the Fashanu brand in Britain. The tables turned.
In 1990, Justin came out publicly in The Sun newspaper (Britain’s largest tabloid) as being gay, despite John’s efforts to prevent him going public with it. John went as far as offering Justin a huge amount of money, more than the tabloid would pay him for the story. John believed this revelation would harm his own career which he has worked so hard to achieve. John had a difficult relationship with his older brother due to his overwhelming popularity and success, which meant John lived in his shadows. In the documentary, John described how if he achieved something, people would say well that is expected, and when he didn’t they would say why not, ‘his brother could do it’. It was a difficult corner to get out of for John. He also described how Justin became his arch enemy after he came out publicly as gay, he dissociated himself from Justin and they literally lost touch for years afterwards. In Britain of that time, you cannot be seen to be openly sympathetic to homosexuality. It was a macho environment, supported by politicians who banded it as a perversion that needed to be contained. The documentary even has a footage of Margaret Thatcher declaring at a Conservative party conference, how children had to be protected from such ideas. It is true when they say the past is a different country. It truly was a Britain difficult to recognise!
After numerous attempts to jumpstart his career, Justin got embroiled in controversy when lurid details of alleged sexual affairs with some British MPs were documented in the tabloids, with himself being the source of these details. He later retracted the claims saying he made them up for the money. He was at rock bottom by this time. Broke and desperate.
He went back to America and coached a small football club. But this soon unravelled when in April 1998, Justin was accused of sexual assault on a 17 year old boy and the police put out a warrant for his arrest. Justin fled back to England fearing incarceration. He denied the charges and claimed he fled because he feared he wouldn’t get a fair trial because he was gay. In May 1998, Justin was found dead in a garage in East London after an apparent suicide with a note saying he was innocent of these charges. He was 37.
The documentary was very moving and demonstrated how events in childhood usually set the pace for life afterwards. Justin felt a sense of abandonment when his mum gave him and his brother up for foster care. He couldn’t come to terms with this, even when his mum tried to explain her side of the story. Justin battled demons buried deep in his life but wore the mask of a confident, charming man who appeared to be in control.
John sobbed during the filming of the documentary as he watched old videos of Justin wishing John would fight his corner. He felt abandoned by John at a time he needed him the most. John’s reaction was however his own survival strategy at a time when having a gay brother could finish his own career as well. John had lost a brother with whom he endured so much with as kids, shared happy and difficult times together, cried and laughed with. It was a sad ending for both brothers.