CAGLIARI, Italy -- Jakub Jankto just wants to play football, like he always did.
The Czech midfielder sits by his locker in the dressing room at Unipol Domus, Cagliari Calcio's temporary home while the Stadio Sant'Elia silently awaits reconstruction next door. A small red-and-blue shirt cut from cardboard marks his place, with No. 21 printed on it. To the right, Paulo Azzi; to the left, Nicolas Viola, a leader who is always impeccably dressed. Jankto arrived on Sardinia this summer, his life forever changed in the two years since he was last in Italy, so he didn't get to choose -- the kitman does that -- but it has worked out well: good players, good friends, he says.
It's quiet now, empty. A Thursday afternoon after an early-morning gym session alone and the team training at the Crai Sport Centre, 13 miles north. Two figurines look over the room -- the Virgin Mary on one side, Sant'Efisio on the other. A message runs round the walls: a land, a people, a team. On the way out, past manager Claudio Ranieri's room, is another from Sugar Ray Leonard: you have to know you can win, you have to think you can win, you have to feel you can win. This place is sacred. Fun sometimes, too. It can also be unforgiving. And it is where he always wanted to be.
"I dreamed of being in a dressing room like this," Jankto says.
Born in Prague in 1996, the son of a car mechanic and a shop assistant, Jakub Jankto -- nicknamed Kuba -- joined Slavia Prague at 6, although he spent last year at their rivals, Sparta, across the Vltava River and a deep sporting divide. He grew up watching and admiring Pavel Nedvěd, Ballon d'Or winner in 2003. And Jan Koller. And Tomáš Rosický.
Mostly, Jankto played.
"He was a natural; he could flip the switch," says David Broukal, the Dynamo Ceske Budejovice defender who grew up with him and watched him leave home at 18, heading for Udinese's academy side.
"And that's when it gets serious," Jankto recalls. "As a kid, you play for fun, but dream. When I go to Italy everything changes. I was young, but I always had in my head that if I say something, I do it: I just said to my dad: 'I take my luggage and go.' He said: 'OK, we'll support you.' Udine to Prague is only six hours, so it's not like I was going to the United States.
"I pushed myself, hard," Jankto continues. "I had the most incredible mentality -- I wanted to build a new history for myself. I left behind my friends, my family. It's hard, but you have to leave something behind for football. And I think I did pretty good."
A league champion with Sparta, Jankto's senior career began on loan at Ascoli (an Italian football club in Marche) when he was still just 19. He has played 234 games at six clubs in three countries but mostly in Italy: at Udinese, Sampdoria and now Cagliari. He has lived victories over Real Madrid and Juventus. He is an international player with Czechia, a European Championship quarterfinalist in 2020. He has 45 caps for his country.
"I am not one of the greatest ever," he says. "I am not Messi, but I am a pretty good football player."
He is also gay.
IN FEBRUARY THIS YEAR, Jankto became the first active male international player to come out as homosexual. He had just turned 27.
"I wasn't scared then; I was scared at 18, 19," he says. "People ask: 'Did you change? Did something happen?' It doesn't work like that. I was born with [my sexuality]. At 13, 14, I felt something ... different. But you don't think too much about it."
Self-discovery, even acceptance, can take time, the personal journey fraught; football, not always the most conducive environment within which to embark upon it, took focus. At 22, Jankto had a son, David, with his then-girlfriend, Markéta Ottomanská. He was 25 when his journey brought him to a full understanding and he told her. "When he revealed it to me, it gave me a great freedom," Ottomanská later said.
"Obviously the relationship is not the best: it was a tough time for her, but we talked everything through, it's all explained now," Jankto recalls. "It's not easy, but you keep talking. What matters is our son, him growing up; everything we do, we do for him. He is 4½ and hasn't seen what happened.
"I don't really know when I decided [to come out publicly]," he continues. By the time he did, his family and best friends had known for 18 months; his Sparta teammates had been told six weeks earlier.
"My teammates were fantastic; it was totally normal, nothing changed."
Returning from Spain to Czechia, parents, son and close friends helped. "My family supported me in every way -- there was absolutely no problem," he says. "When you are home, it's much easier. Maybe if I hadn't gone to Prague, it wouldn't happen, I don't know."
Jankto had thought about it, wondered what to do, how people would react, whether it would help. Not just him but others too. He concluded that there wasn't really a decision to make: this was the only way to take control and get on with his life, his career. With just being him. He wasn't going to be forced out of the career he had built, the game he loves. Ottomanská spoke of gossip. "I am very proud he has mustered the strength to go public. I am sure he will be relieved," she said.
"There's a situation where maybe I want to start dates with guys, where sex becomes a subject, people talked [about] me," Jankto says. "I didn't want to hide. Maybe I'm watching a YouTube video or a TikTok, or messaging someone, or you're dating guys, and you're scared someone will see it. You're hiding your phone. I didn't want to have to do that, that was a bad feeling. Maybe if I date a guy, I had to hide, too. You weren't sure he wouldn't write [about you]. I couldn't do what I wanted with life, and I decided I had to speak.
"I was like: 'OK, stop it, I will tell everyone.'" Jankto continues. "Maybe it will be hard, but I will tell the world one time and I will feel OK. Now I don't have to do those things; that's the difference. I feel good. If I am free, I can go out, relax, listen to music, have fun. You need that."
In a video released online in February this year, Jankto became the first active male international player to come out as gay.
"I just said: 'Let's go and do the video.' And then we did it."
In just one take?
The video was 39 seconds long.
"Hi, I'm Jakub Jankto," it begins.
"Like everybody else, I have my strengths, I have my weaknesses. I have a family, I have my friends. I have a job, which I have been doing as best as I can for years, with seriousness, professionalism and passion. Like everybody else, I also want to live my life in freedom without fears, without prejudice, without violence, but with love. I am homosexual, and I no longer want to hide myself."
THE IMPACT WAS COLOSSAL. "My friend even said: 'Hey, that was the second-most watched video ever' in the Czech Republic. And I just said: 'Why?'"
"It is huge, of course; Jakub has proven you can be gay and play in one of the top five European leagues," says Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Germany international who came out the year after retiring in 2013. "It's not easy. I would have loved to come out while still playing. I tried, but I was told not to, which was probably good advice at the time, as I wasn't strong enough. I was injured a lot too and didn't want to feed the stereotype that gay people are weak and vulnerable."
"These stories matter because they are so rare, especially in the men's game -- we're still in a world of firsts," says Jon Holmes, a journalist who founded Sports Media LGBT+ and works for the Football v Homophobia campaign.
"A player of Jankto's significance puts his head above the parapet and, because we've all been through that, battling with part of who you are, you automatically feel a connection -- that can be massively uplifting for a lot of people. That lifting of a weight binds the community, and there's a galvanizing effect when someone public speaks, taking it beyond a purely personal story."
Here was a role model, if a reluctant one. Jankto is proud of what he has done, but if there is a recurring theme, it is normalisation. There's no campaign, no aspiration to create a new public profile or become an advocate. Pride is not his thing, he says, and he is uneasy about imposing advice on anyone deciding whether to come out: "Do what you do, what you feel is good for you personally. Don't care too much about other people," he says.
Yet what he has done for other people is huge, part of his motivation, and the fact that he stands alone is indicative of how significant the step he made was. "You're asked to be a spokesperson because you're the only one," Holmes adds.
"I said to Frantisek: 'It's just a video, a normal video,'" Jankto says, "but when it's about sexuality, something new, people talk more. It's surprising that I was the first to announce."
So, why are you? Why did you have to be the first international footballer player? Why do others not want to?
"It's a good question," Jankto says. "Football was, and I think is, a little bit homophobic. It is how it is; I can't change it. There are different mentalities everywhere; in some places, it is more normal. I'm surprised to be the first one saying this, like it's a new thing; maybe now it doesn't have to be. It's 2023, I don't want footballers to have to explain. I feel good if, gay, hetero, they don't have to announce [their sexuality] like a new thing, like I had to.
"The video had 20, 25, 30 million views. I was a bomb," Jankto continues. "I received millions of messages, it was incredible. There was support from Real Madrid, Arsenal, Barcelona, all these big clubs. I didn't expect that. That was great, and it helped. But it's pressure too. I did expect something, but I thought: 'Well, after the first two, three weeks ...'"
It didn't work out that way. Although Jankto is grateful for the messages backing him, thanking him, the announcement came with scrutiny, pressure and a presence he had not sought -- and still does not. A responsibility, a credit, he does not claim.
"But the message is huge and he is a role model, whether he intends to be or not," Hitzlsperger says.
"The first reason for coming out was myself, then maybe to help someone going through the same," Jankto says. "Maybe it is new in football, but it's not something bad, I think it's normal, and I think I gave a really good example, a great example, and now maybe people see that there is no reason to hide. I think it benefits a lot of people.
"I would do it again," he says, which he can say now. In those weeks after coming out, he might have felt differently. If a weight was lifted, more was loaded on. "To be honest, it was tough," he says. "I just came through this situation [now]. Now I am talking about normal things, but in February maybe, it was..."
There is a pause. "I needed some time to myself, to breathe. I had always been pushing, since I was 18, for the best way to perform good. I was always thinking about the football, about the professional aspect, but never thinking about myself, what I want to do. And so maybe in March, April, I say f---king hell -- sorry for that word -- I need some time for myself, you know?"
With the support of sporting director Tomáš Rosický, coach Brian Priske and the captains, David Pavelka and Ladislav Krejči, Sparta gave Jankto the space he needed. He played 20 minutes against Jablonec six days after the announcement, coming on to a huge cheer, four more games in March, and one in April. Then he stepped away, travelled, took his time, took it all in. He played just once more, in the cup -- against his friend Broukal.
"That's the beauty of football: I had been to Italy to see him play against Ronaldo and now we played each other. There are no friendships there. I didn't kick him, but I wouldn't have hesitated," Broukal laughs. "Of course it's not fair to have all that added pressure and everyone wishes just to be a footballer, but Jakub is a clever guy: he understood the responsibilities. He is strong too: maybe that comes from leaving home so young."
"If I can come through this," Jankto says, "I can face every situation."
Many saw the video as a beginning; Jankto's intention was for it to be the end.
"I wanted it to be like: Once you give the message, stop talking about it. In February, it is finished there. I don't want to talk anymore to the coach, the directors, fans, players, anyone, about sexuality, about personal things. I want to work, to talk football, to give 100%. That [sexuality] ends there.
"We can talk about anything, but we don't need to talk about the situation anymore," he continues. "Why? Is it something strange? Those questions were stupid questions. People would ask what I expected when I played, if I expected whistles, comments. And I thought: Why is that a question? There's no reason. It's nothing. And it has been nothing, and I'm happy for that because everybody can do what we want to do [in life]. Nobody, nobody whistled [in derision], and it was so good. I'm happy about that. Very, very happy."
"People want me to be the captain of a certain community. I always say: look, I respect everyone, all the community, all the people. But I just want to focus on myself, on my team, on Cagliari, maybe the national team too. I cannot decide for other people. If they want to speak, OK, they speak. I just wanted to give a message to everybody. I think it went really, really good. It finished there. I just wanted to give a message, and, yeah, now we just carry on."
IT'S STILL DARK WHEN JANKTO sets off for the gym in the morning, only him and the security guard there. "I go, listen to music -- Jay-Z, Rihanna, Madonna, the old stuff too -- and work on myself. I want and need that time."
He rests, has breakfast, trains with his team and, a couple of hours later, arrives at the stadium. He walks in, maté (a South American herbal drink) in hand, his son's initials embossed on the cup, flask plastered with stickers: the Sex Pistols, Foo Fighters, the Stones, Rage Against the Machine. A habit learned from older Uruguayan teammates -- Gastón Ramírez, Mathías Olivera, Mauro Arambarri, Damián Suárez, Gastón Pereiro -- and passed to younger ones.
There is something almost symbolic about returning to Italy, starting again. Back to the game, to being himself; truly himself. Jakub Jankto, footballer.
"What do we talk about here?" he says, looking around the dressing room. "Football. There's a difference between this dressing room and the training ground. It depends too: with guys who are 18, 19, 20, maybe you can't talk politics. When you are young, there is a little bit of fear here, too much respect. I am more relaxed, more experienced now. I have a bigger responsibility. But I don't feel like a captain. Leonardo Pavoletti, Viola, Gianluca Lapadula -- these are the leaders. An hour before the game, we are just here, thinking about what can happen."
Out and to the left is the foyer where the teams line up, the point at which -- even now, nine years into his career -- there are nerves. It's a serious business, this. If he can, Jankto likes to be the last to come out, but it's not always his choice. Through the glass doors, taking care not to tread on the Cagliari badge, is the pitch, a square scaffold-built stadium boxing it in.
"The fans are close: intense, noisy, a 12th player," Jankto says. "When we were in a bad situation, they didn't whistle, they didn't say things. [Instead] they support us. A few weeks ago, we were 3-0 down and we felt this energy. We won 4-3."
Jankto talks fondly of all the clubs he has played for and the places he has been from Udine to Genoa and Madrid -- 15 minutes from Getafe's ground, Boadilla del Monte might be the place he most liked to live.
The island is still mostly unexplored -- today is a first chance -- but it too appears a good place to have arrived at, a good club too.
Sitting in the stand is Stefano Melis, Cagliari's managing director. "This club is kind of unique," he says. "We truly represent one people: it is the club of the island, of Sardinians around the world; there is something special about that, unifying. We have a project, Be As One, which defends equality and inclusion. It's a sort of manifesto, a set of values, a kind of North Star that guides us every day."
Does Jankto play a part? "I truly believe that Jakub, exactly like the rest of the team, is special. Cagliari chooses its players on and off the pitch. Jakub is just one of them," Melis says.
The man who chose him was Claudio Ranieri, the coach. "Jankto is a great player, an artist. He's strong, runs like a devil, has good feet, great diagonal runs, assists, goals... He's a golden lad," he told reporters as preparations for the season began. "I looked at his profile and at the dressing room, which is a family; I am convinced there will be no problem whatsoever."
There has been none, Jankto says.
Nor, Ranieri told them then, would Jankto need special protection, and that has been borne out too. "I understand how he must have struggled to express something that is only natural. It was hard for him and who knows how many other kids, not just in sport. It would be nice if there were more messages like his. The mother of the ignorant is always pregnant: maybe some idiot will say something. But I believe that a boy who has done what he did is already strong inside."
The feeling is mutual: Ranieri, Jankto's coach at Sampdoria, was a reason to return, the man under whom he felt comfortable beginning again. "You want a Ranieri story? There are so many," Jankto says, laughing.
"He took Cagliari from Serie B to Serie A, he is really like a king in the city and he wanted me. I'm so satisfied to work with him. After games, he jokes. I might have scored or assisted and he says: 'Kuba, did you play today? I didn't see you.' I can't say nothing because I have too much respect. But in the game, when you're emotional, he screams at me and maybe I am the person who is too sensitive and I scream back."
"He knows players really well, the mentality, he connects. He has big experience; he knows exactly how football works. Sometimes you think he's doing something strange, but he's proven right."
THE CAR CLIMBS THE STEEP HILL from the beach to the Terrazza Umberto I at the top of the Bastione di Saint Remy, as the sun finishes setting over the Mediterranean. Darkness falling again on a long day, it is hard to think of anyone as accommodating, as generous, as understanding as the footballer looking out across the sea reflecting on everything that has happened, a year that has changed his life. And, in fact, those of many people.
So what now? What next?
"I am coming up to 28, 'middle-aged.' I am the guy who thinks about other things more than other players. I have an esports company, and we're building something good. People say I am an unusual footballer, but this is who I am; I am happy in myself, and I don't need to change. I also always had the idea that I would like to coach, but just with kids. I think I have a good head, good mentality, good education from my parents. I have to improve in English. Maybe, who knows, I might go to live in the United States when I am older.
"But for now I just want to play football," he continues. "I don't want to think too, too much. I am 100 percent focused on Cagliari. The people are good, and I see a brilliant future. We knew it would be tough because we came from Serie B, there are better teams, but we are a strong group, and with the help of our fans we hope to stay in Serie A. I will do all I can, and if the performances are very good, I will go also to the national team."
Jankto's last game for Czechia was against Spain in June 2022. There has been chaos at the federation, three players banished from the squad for partying with a federation official while on international duty, a coach walking away. He too took a step back.
"I am happy we qualified for Germany [Euro 2024]. Unfortunately, the coach [Jaroslav Šilhavý] says he doesn't want to continue, so now things are going to change, and we will see what happens," he says. "These last few months I have been focused more on my family. On international breaks, I go to Prague to be with my son, my parents. It is hard not being with him, I miss him, but you have to work, and I have a job that allows me to do things others can't -- go to Disneyland, enjoy it together. If you want to take in life, you have to give.
"He's only 4; he knows I am a footballer, but he's too small to understand," Jankto adds. "He just wants to see his dad. When you focus more on your family, maybe you don't focus too much on the national team, but for sure if the new coach wants me to play, calls me, I am available for everything. On the other hand, I am happy with my family.
"In football, what happened, happened. You score, and the next day you don't think about it anymore. There's another game. That mentality is good, and maybe it's helping me, pushing me forward. When I was younger, I wanted to play with the ball, but my focus is more the team now, better tactically. And football is still fun. No one says: 'Hey, you have to play.' This is what I always dreamed of.
"The worst thing about football? There is no really bad thing. For sure, we didn't choose this responsibility, but once you are a professional, you should give a good example, try to give a positive message. We do our best. At least, I am trying to do my best. I will make mistakes for sure -- I have and I will -- but I am trying. I am happy."