Last week a media frenzy erupted in both England and Germany as former-German international football player Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed in an interview in Bild magazine that he is gay. If you haven’t heard of it, it probably means you are not a member of either of the dichotomous interest groups of football fans or the gay community. To anyone outside these two groups it is quite possible that the significance or relevance of the incident is confusing or nonexistent, yet to sports fans and the gay community it is quite a big deal indeed. Hitzlsperger wasn’t the best or most famous player in the world, but he was a fan-favourite because every ten games or so he would fire an absolute cannon of a shot from outside the penalty area with his left foot, earning him the nickname ‘Der Hammer’. His was a name you would only hear every few years, never making headlines or securing lucrative promotional deals. Even so, he played at the highest level in Germany and England for over a decade, and played for his country at the World Cup and European Championships (admittedly at a time when there was a dearth of talent in the German National Team). There are hundreds of Thomas Hitzlspergers littered throughout the big football leagues of Europe, yet still, on January 8th 2014 he became the most high-profile footballer in history to come out publicly as a homosexual. He had retired from the game four months previously. To this date, no active professional footballer in a major European league has ever come out publically, yet the concensus in both England and Germany is that Hitzlspergers’ announcement would be a step towards this. The media frenzy surrounding The Bi-Curious* Case of Thomas Hitzlsperger is not about the former footballer himself, but about which current, active footballer that he inspires.
I would imagine that many people reading this by now are wondering what the big deal is, why don’t players just come out? There are 25,000 professional football players in major European leagues, they are all men, and while estimates of the percentage of gay men in the average population vary between 1% and 10% this still leaves a lot of professional footballers firmly in the closet. Add this to all the retired players in the history of the sport and the number is quite substantial. The potential selection bias must be dealt with: the stereotype that gay men don’t play sports, nor aspire to become professional athletes. This argument is simply ridiculous, and is conducive to an argument stating that homosexuality is unnatural. Elite athleticism is an admired and lucrative profession. It requires dedication, sacrifice and torturous hours of training, with potential rewards of universal adoration and millions of dollars/euros/pounds. It is no different than acting, singing, writing or any other highly public professions at which openly gay men and women have excelled in at the highest level possible. If there is a lack of openly gay men playing professional football in Europe, which is the most popular and financially rewarding sport in the world, this must therefore be an issue within football itself, and by abstraction within sport itself. The issue is that there are many gay footballers, and sportsmen and sportswomen, but they are afraid to come out in that environment.
The most obvious reason for this is that professional footballers at the elite level have to perform on a weekly basis in front of several thousand hostile fans. Players get the most awful abuse thrown at them by opposition fans. David Beckham had to endure half a decade of songs being sung about his whore of a wife (their words) from the terraces. Recently Jack Wilshere (one of Englands prominent young players) was cautioned by the football authorities for lashing back at sections of the crowd who were insulting his newborn child. Black players are routinely abused in stadia, particularly in Italy And Russia, with sections of the crowd throwing bananas at players and chanting like monkeys. Mario Balotelli is an Italian of Ghanian decent and one of the Italian national teams brightest stars, yet had to leave Italy to play elsewhere so he could develop properly away from this caustic environment. Anyone who is in anyway ‘different’ or in the public eye is mercilessly attacked, mostly in the hope that the abuse will affect the players’ mentality, that he will lose focus and therefore become less of a threat for the team supported by the chanting fans. Often it is a compliment to the abused player that he is getting attacked since it implies that the opposition fans regard him as dangerous to their team, yet still it requires a particular mental strength to dust off highly personal insults and focus on the task at hand. The difference with homosexuality is that the player has a (not necessarily easy) choice to hide the fact that he is gay. A reasonable, objective argument for why gay players don’t come out is that they simply don’t want the added pressure of dealing with crowd abuse and prefer to focus on the game. This is a highly naive argument however, as it assumes that any crowd (let alone a crowd of partisan, drunken, working class football fans) is composed of reasonable individuals. Homophobia is undoubtedly highly embedded within the sporting culture, and the first active players to come out publically will feel this wrath. Attitudes will change over time, but the first openly gay players will be mocked and singled out for abuse by sections of the crowd wherever they go.
Why is all this important, though? Most people reading this will not have met any gay men with any interest in football whatsoever, so it seems like a very niche issue. Robbie Rogers, a young American player who retired, came out, and subsequently came back from retirement in a lower level (non elite, the American league), was asked about Hitzlsperger immediately after the German player came out. While growing up, Rogers had highly admired Hitzlspergers style of play, and said that if he had known that the player was gay it would have made a big difference to him. He would not have felt so isolated in such a homophobic environment as his choice of profession, it would have instilled him with confidence and belief that a gay footballer could succeed at the highest level. Football was Rogers’ way of fitting in with his peers, a way he could forget the shame, doubt and fear that came with knowing deep inside that he was different. I can only assume that there are countless other gay kids out there who love only to play sports, yet feel that their sexuality will ultimately come into play at some point and ruin their career.
At a basic level, it is about role models, someone similar to you who you can relate to and possibly aim to emulate. Lionel Messi, who only yesterday ceased being the Worlds’ Greatest Player Ever, has inspired a generation of tiny skinny kids in the playground that they too could compete with the bigger kids in the yard. Cristiano Ronaldo, who replaced Messi yesterday by winning the Ballon d’Or, has hopefully convinced the kids in Madeira that there actually is a way off that godforsaken island, and that there is an alternative to serving drunk British tourists more alcohol day in, day out, for the rest of their lives. The first openly gay elite footballer is coming out soon, and while it will be a cross for that man to bear, his sacrifice will have an enormous effect on subsequent generations of players who know that they can achieve their potential, regardless of their personal lives.