‘Widespread support for Thomas Hitzlsperger from the football community’ ran the headline on one website yesterday, after the former German international and Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton man came out as gay in a newspaper interview.
And then you scrolled down and discovered that this particular football community essentially consisted of Joey Barton, Gary Lineker and Lukas Poldolski, along with a trio of enlightened media folk.
Doubtless more have added their support since but, still, ‘widespread’ seems to be pushing it a bit.
Joey Barton, not someone you often find yourself cheering for, saluted Hitzlsperger for his “courage” before pointedly adding, “sad times when people have to wait till they retire from their chosen profession...”
Barton, to his credit, has been outspoken in his opposition to homophobia in the past, so this was clearly not a criticism of Hitzlsperger but, rather, a despairing comment on what he must regard as the still essentially macho culture of football — from the dressing room to the stands — which means that homosexuality remains, for many, the sport’s “last taboo”.
Hitzlsperger himself appeared to admit as much in his thoughtful interview with a German newspaper, suggesting on the one hand that “in England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room” but then seeming almost to contradict himself with the revelation that “it was not always easy to sit at a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays.”
It was doubtless for similar reasons that even German captain Philipp Lahm, although a recognised champion of gay rights — “if a player is gay, he is still my team-mate and I would never change anything about how I would be around him,” he said in 2008 — subsequently courted controversy when, in a 2012 interview, he appeared to imply that gay footballers should be cautious about coming out, warning that “an openly gay footballer would be exposed to abusive elements...for someone who does (come out), it would be very difficult.”
Of course, to a great extent, he was only stating the obvious, especially since his comments came against the lurid backdrop in his own country of the agent of German captain Michael Ballack charging that the national team contained “a bunch of gays” and the former Schalke 04 manager Rudi Assauer insisting that there was “no place” for gay players in football.
It might be easy enough to dismiss such comments for the prehistoric drivel which they so obviously are, yet it would be foolish to think that such prejudice wouldn’t still find a magnified echo throughout parts of the football world, especially since the cowardly anonymity of social media has served only to personalise and intensify the traditional bullying howl of the terrace mob.
The good news is that surveys have shown homophobia in sport to be in steep decline and, so, the real benefit of Hitzlsperger’s revelation is that, as the first player of the Premier League era to do so, his coming out should give fresh encouragement to others to follow suit.
But the real test — and the real breakthrough — will only arrive when a still active player comes out.
As Hitzlsperger himself put it in an interview two years ago: “He should not let himself be guided by what other people think and say about him.
On the other hand, he could also become a great role model for gay sports stars and also for other people who haven’t yet been able to deal with their homosexuality.”
Meantime, one suspects it would help considerably if more straight people in football — especially in the management class — came out, as it were, to add their voices to the cause.
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