On the 8th January, Thomas Hitzlsperger became the most high profile footballer to come out as gay.
Hitzlsperger, who over the course of his 12 year career, had played for Aston Villa, Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham United, Wolfsburg and Everton, had also been capped 52 times by Germany, before retiring from the game in September, citing injury issues as the reason.
The German is not the first football player to come out as gay, but his status as a former Premier League player and as an international, makes him the most high-profile. But following his retirement last year, it means that there are currently no active footballers in England who have stated that they are gay.
So what is the reason for this?
Statistically it is unlikely, but it is just possible that the reason is because there are no gay footballers currently playing professional football.
That said, given that former players have since come out following their retirement, it is more likely that there is a fear of what would happen to them if they revealed their sexuality rather than there being a complete lack of gay players.
The last player who had played in English football to come out was Robbie Rogers, himself an American international with 18 caps, but in his 12 month spell in English football, played just 10 games so he was not well known at all in England.
However, following his initial retirement, Rogers stated:
“In football it’s obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No-one. It’s crazy and sad. I thought: ‘Why don’t I step away and deal with this and my family and be happy?’
And Hitzsperger has stated that he thought about coming out while playing, but decided against as the resulting scrutiny may have proved too much of a distraction from his on field activities.
Following the support that Hitzlsperger has received from fellow professionals in the last few days, the suggestion would be the any opposition to gay footballers would not come from within the dressing room, but more likely, from the terraces and from fans themselves.
Rogers was quoted, when asked about abuse from fans as saying:
“Woah!”. “I can’t even think about that.
“Definitely. Maybe a lot of fans aren’t homophobic. But, in a stadium, sometimes they want to destroy you. In the past I would have said: ‘They don’t know I’m gay so it doesn’t mean anything.’ But, now they know it, am I going to jump in the stands and fight them?”
A 2010 study from the University of Staffordshire revealed that 93% of football fans that they surveyed frowned upon and disapproved of homosexual abuse from the terraces, but that figure does not always correspond to what actually happens in a football ground.
Fans of Brighton and Hove Albion still have to put up with opposition fans often chanting “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” at them during matches.
If a player goes down too easily in a match, fans can be heard telling the player to ‘get up, poof’ etc.
And football crowds are not shy in using incidents from players’ personal lives to make up chants to use against players, and almost certainly, there would be some fans who would use a players sexuality to abuse them from the stands.
Perhaps another potential barrier is the celebrity status that any current player coming out would be subjected to, and almost certainly, it would become the thing that would follow them around for the rest of their career. Not every player wants that attention from the press and the public and may not want to reveal their sexuality because they might want to retain control over their personal life.
However, there is definitely a trend of progression and a growing acceptance towards homosexuality in football and other sports. Other current stars, such as Steven Davies and Tom Daley, have revealed their sexuality and have continued their careers normally, and been met with huge support from their fans and wider society.
Former England women’s national team manager Hope Powell, is openly gay, but any criticism of her was due to her managerial ability and not due to her sexuality. Attitudes of fans are changing for the better, and since Hitzlsperger’s announcement on Wednesday, the majority of fans have reacted positively to the news.
Of course there will be those who will always have homophobic attitudes, but there appears to be fewer and fewer of them, and the general reaction of fans in a crowd to another member shouting at a player they are a “queer” would be of disgust and disappointment, something that may not have been the case ten years ago.
That said, if Hitzlsperger was playing this weekend for a team, I would be fairly certain that he would be subjected to a chant from certain fans which would refer to him ‘taking something up the arse’.
It does appear that English football is moving closer to a gay player announcing this to the world, and I’m sure, on the day that it happens, that player will be congratulated by many people, inside and outside of the game – but the real test of a reaction within the footballing community would come when they step onto the pitch for the next time.
In the end though, fans tend to only care about what happens on the pitch. A player could be racist, sexist, homophobic, violent or otherwise a terrible person – but if you are a good player, most fans will support you regardless. And if you are not playing well, you will have the fans on your back, regardless of how nice a human being you are off the field. The FA has not succumbed to personality tests for players yet, football is still a performance based meritocracy.
For now though, If you are gay or straight? Most fans won’t care as long as you are producing the goods on the field. But while it is only most fans, that might not be enough to feel safe to come out to the whole world…