For the past couple of days, ever since Thomas Hitzlsperger became the most high profile footballer to come out of the closet, he has been the talk of the town, not just in Germany but in the footballing world as well. Hitzlsperger became the second footballer in the last twelve months to come out about his homosexuality, following in the footsteps of Robbie Rogers. And whilst the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with support spreading from all corners of the world, the question of why it is such a big deal surely arises.
We are, after all in the 21st century, at a time when our technology and our thinking is at an all-time high. We are at a juncture where we have gay musicians, politicians, and people from all walks of life who are gay. So should it come as a surprise that most popular game in the world that is played by over a billion people has homosexuals playing it? The truth is that, while there have always been and will continue to be homosexuals playing football, there are very few who openly admit it to the world. Here, again, the question of why is it so hard arises.
The answer lies in the fact that football, for better or for worse, has always been described as a man’s game. The tribal nature of not just football, but its fans as well, make it difficult for people to come out. It is seen as something that is played by the strongest in the world, and being homophobic, is something that goes against that very fact. The bitter truth is that even in this day, homophobic chants are prevalent at most football grounds and the supporters hurl homophobic abuse at players, most of whom aren’t gay at all. The unfortunate truth is that, not only does it happen at the highest level, but is very common in the grassroots as well.
Whilst most players, Hitzlsperger included, admit that the sexual orientation of someone isn’t usually up for debate in the dressing room, outside it, in the stadium, it is a whole other ball game altogether. The fans force the player’s hand and make it all the more difficult for them to admit it. And although Hitzlsperger became the first former Premier League player to come out, he only did so after he quit playing football.
By his own admission, he deliberated coming out when he was still playing with Wolfsburg, but was weary of the consequences that might ensue out of it and eventually decided against it. That very thought was echoed by Germany captain Philip Lahm who admitted that he wouldn’t encourage players to come out when they are still playing, keeping in mind the scrutiny they will come under.
Whilst it is true that such a high profile footballer will surely encourage a lot of others to come out, that is more out of hope, rather than expectation. The truth is that, even with all the hoopla surrounding Hitzlsperger for taking a courageous step forward in the fight against homophobia, it will surely be a long time before it is truly accepted. Because tribalism and football have always gone hand-in-hand, and for that to change and for gay footballers to be accepted, it is surely going to take a lot more Hitzlsperger’s and Rogers’s. And even if they do, the fans must be ready to accept that fact, and therein lies the biggest challenge in the fight against homophobia.
In my humble opinion, for all the column inches devoted towards gay players coming out; in an ideal world this shouldn’t be news at all. A football player coming out about his sexuality should have been no more a new story than diving or anything else associated with football. But the circus surrounding his announcement shows that, for all our advancements, we are still living in a far-from ideal world.
And whilst there is still a long way to go before that happens, the truth is that as more and more players starting coming out, it becomes easier for those coming afterwards. It makes a lot of difference for young gay kids growing up knowing that their idols went through the same things that they are feeling at that moment, and that will in turn drive them towards something positive.
And that is why Hitzlsperger’s announcement should be celebrated, not because he did something profound or courageous or brave, but because he did something that is sure to leave an indelible mark that it is etched in everybody hearts and took one small step towards winning the fight against homophobia.