Jakub Jankto’s soccer career was going fine. The midfielder was playing for Czech Republic’s national team, and advanced into the quarter finals of a major European tournament.
But the Czech native knew he needed to change something about himself if he was going to reach the next level.
He had to publicly come out.
In a new interview with BBC, Jankto, who publicly came out as gay in February, reflects on the last eight months. He says he realized staying closeted was holding him back– on and off the pitch.
“I also thought to myself: ‘Well look, Jakub, you are a professional footballer, but you have your life that you have to live like you want.’ And for me, that was fundamental,” he said.
Jankto referenced his quest for freedom in his coming out video.
“Like everyone else, I want to live my life with freedom, without fear, without violence, without prejudice, but with love,” he said. “I am homosexual and I no longer want to hide myself,” he added.
As one of the few out gay pro soccer players–along with Josh Cavallo, Zander Murray and 18-year-old Jake Daniels–Jankto’s announcement made international headlines.
He says the overwhelming response was uplifting, but also a little scary.
Jankto knows there’s a dearth of out gay male pro soccer players, and that young LGBTQ+ kids are now counting on him to lead.
“When you receive thousands, maybe millions, of messages from people saying they appreciate me and thank me, it makes me really happy, and the people were amazing,” he said. “But it does put pressure on me. It’s not easy to be the first guy at my level who says: ‘Yeah, I’m gay.'”
While it certainly isn’t easy, Jankto received a ton of positive reinforcement when he returned to the field. When he appeared in his first match since coming out, fans showered him with a standing ovation.
And the best part is, the warm reception came in his home country. Jankto was playing for Sparta Prague of the Czech First League, and entered with his club up 2-0 over Jablonec.
To cap it off, the 27-year-old played a key role in his team’s third goal of the contest.
“For me, the strongest moment in my career. A minute I will never forget,” he posted on social media. “3 points, great atmosphere. Thank you to all the people at the stadium! We keep pushing.”
Jankto followed through on his promise. He’s playing for Serie A’s Cagliari in Italy this season. Serie A is the top league in the country.
Still, Jankto craves to play for his home country again.
“Playing for your national team is the biggest thing you can do, and getting into the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 with the Czech Republic is the biggest success I’ve had personally, as well as for us as a team,” he said.
Jankto also knows about the importance of representation. He thinks back to when he was young, and what it would’ve meant for him to see an out gay player on his country’s national team.
“If I could [come out] again, I definitely would, because it helped myself and I think it helped many, many people,” he said. “It was a huge moment for all footballers, and many professional footballers at many clubs wrote to me, thanking me for it.”
Now that Jankto is out, he says it surprises him there aren’t more out gay soccer players. Though he’s experienced a degree of blowback–there are some nasty social media messages–the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s 2023, I don’t know how many millions of people are gay, and you’re the first gay footballer in the top five leagues – this is strange! I was surprised by that,” he said.
But Jankto is one of a select few, and the best part is, his teammates don’t treat him any differently.
Like most athletes, Jankto just wants to be “one of the guys.” That’s what he was before coming out, and that’s what he’s been since.
“It’s good that everyone knows, but with the guys, we’re not speaking about it. They just say ‘let’s hang out’, and I say ‘I’ll come with my son or my friends’, and there’s no problem,” he said.
Forced to step away last season due to health issues, Jankto is grateful to be out there on the field.
After coming out, he felt like he could overcome any obstacle.
“I’m definitely proud of myself, because if I can get through this situation, I can go through every situation in the rest of my life,” he said.
And what’s his final message, you ask?
Don’t be scared!
“If you say that gay people are proud of me, I say that I’m proud of you, because I know how you feel. I know how people feel if they have to hide something, and I wish you good luck and stay strong, because there’s no reason to be scared,” he said.
Jankto is proving that every single day.