Thomas Hitzlsperger is still the most high-profile current or former professional male footballer to come out. When he made the announcement in January 2014, I believed this would open the “closet” – or perhaps “locker room door” is more apt, for those who felt/feel unable to do the same. So where are the gay footballers? I really want to stress here that I am not calling for some sort of “outing” or search for who and where “they” are, but to provoke the question of why there is still such a taboo in the game.
I know I am not the only person asking this question. People I speak with all agree that “… there have to be lots”, playing or retired. The implications arguably affect current and former players differently. Only 0.012% of all players in England who train with pro clubs in youth academies actually make it as professional players. This is around 180 players per year entering the game (a daunting statistic in itself for an aspiring young player), and there must be around the same number retiring. Since Thomas came out seven years ago, approximately 1280 players have entered and roughly the same have left an existing pool of thousands of professional players in England alone. You can multiply that by the number of major leagues across Europe, and it’s clear that there are thousands of men starting, currently playing, or leaving the game every year.
I have been in the football business for almost 30 years, played at a decent level from childhood, and grown up with friends who went on to become global football stars. So I have an idea of some of the homophobic thoughts and misperceptions that exist(ed). In fact, homophobic comments are often used to motivate an under-performing teammate (“You’re playing like a faggot”), criticise a poor effort, or destabilise an opponent. My experience around the game, as well as a lot of research, has also raised the question – with so many talented players who don’t make it … what is that “extra something” that differentiates those who do make it? Is it a hunger, a physical quality, genes? Whatever it is, I can’t believe that this filters out the gay player to ensure some sort of heterosexual purity in the professional game. Why are gay men so underrepresented compared to the rest of society?
I have known Thomas for almost 20 years, and feel honoured that I was one of the first people he opened up to, years before coming out publicly. He was a regular in one of the world’s top and most consistent national teams. In 2007 he scored a sensational goal to clinch the Bundesliga title for VfB Stuttgart. Young, handsome, incredibly eloquent and well-read in German and English, and an all-round good human being (people have said, “no wonder he is gay”), the world was his. By 2008 he had left his long-term girlfriend and was the most eligible bachelor in the German 2008 Euro Championship squad. The press speculated about several wannabe WAGs (wives and girlfriends of footballers) who might be associated with him … and I even asked for the inside scoop on who it would be. By 2009 it began to unravel: things were not going well at Stuttgart; he moved to Lazio. Selfishly, I was excited. I had lived in Rome, consider it my favourite city, and pretty much had every weekend lined up to head down there. But he was clearly unhappy. He wasn’t getting game time, and without it, his chances of going to the 2010 World Cup were reducing. He was increasingly injured. We spent hours on the phone talking about “stuff”, and I started to worry. Strangely, whilst we were talking about anything and everything, I had a sense of something missing. Not deliberately being held back … but just a nagging feeling that there was something …
On a winter evening in 2011, he asked to meet me at a London restaurant … and there was an ominous tone in his voice. Whenever I reflect, it still brings a tear to my eye. When he told me, I said, “thank f*ck for that”… we were both relieved, and from that moment, there was absolutely nothing we couldn’t and haven’t spoken about.
He has always had a strong interest in diversity and cultures, including supporting an orphanage in Africa. In a previous article, I referenced the “four pillars” – being white, heterosexual, Christian, male – and Thomas is three out of four, as am I (clearly a different 3/4). In many of our conversations we explore and share perspectives, and ask many questions about our respective challenges. We both acknowledge that not being 4/4 means we live our lives conscious of how we are perceived and behave.
Why was his coming out so important? Well, perhaps first and foremost, for him personally, just imagine the mental impact of spending your life going to work each day and not being able to properly answer questions about what you did in your spare time, and with whom. Or having to covertly try and meet friends and/or potential partners, knowing that it could become a front-page scandal? That’s a huge and unfair pressure in itself.
Some critics claim it would have been a more powerful statement if he had come out whilst still playing, and that it was easier once he had stopped playing. The fact remains that despite thousands of players retiring since his coming out, no one else has. This suggests that something is holding them back.
Regarding the current players, Thomas and I feel it is strange that someone hasn’t come out yet. There is possibly a “commercial avalanche” of opportunities for the player who does. In the stadium, he says, “there is an increasing level of protection from the fans”… sadly, most Black players will disagree.
Footballers are role models, whether they want it or not! Again, I’m not calling for an “outing”. But don’t they owe it to themselves and us? Not just rainbow laces …but out and proud?
MLK dreamt of a day where people would be judged solely “ …by the content of their character”. I personally dream of a day when there will be no need to ask this question, but for now I still wonder, where are they all?