So the controversial topic of homosexuality in football has hit the headlines again with the announcement from the now retired Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay, but in this day and age should the topic even be deemed controversial.
A person’s race, creed or in this case sexuality bears no relevance in a person’s ability to perform their job and therefore should be deemed an insignificant factor. Hitzlsperger’s fifty two caps for Germany would seem to validate this. However, the problems which sensationalise the issue of homosexuality in football, centres not on a players’s ability to perform his job but rather how they will be perceived amongst their peers, superiors and spectators in an industry renowned for its masculine/macho stereotype. How sad it is, with us now entering 2014, that the football industry is still entwined in such an unwavering, homophobic stereotype.
A fear undoubtedly exists regarding what effect a homosexual footballer might have in the dressing room, on the club, on the terraces and on the industry as a whole. In my opinion, it’s nothing more than a fear of the unknown that stops clubs and the football industry in general from fully embracing difference and further aiding and accommodating the hardships faced by gay footballers ‘coming out’ within the game.
It’s not the first time, and probably won’t be the last time, football has faced questions of prejudice and inequality. Comparisons of such fear of difference can surely be made with the plight black players faced in the English game through the decades of the 60’s through to the 80’s. At the time, clubs and players up and down the country had the same prejudiced views and fears on the effect the introduction of a black player might have in a predominantly “white industry” both in the dressing room and on the terraces, but over time these barriers were broken down and equality is prevailing. Yes, there were and unfortunately still are dark times of outrageous racist demonstrations on the terraces but for equality to prevail, it took and continues to take brave men to shoulder the vitriol in order to smooth the path for future generations. With this in mind, I’m sure, over time, the attitude towards homosexuality in football would go the same way as that of racism in football, but it firstly needs someone brave enough, perhaps the footballing equivalent of rugby’s Gareth Thomas, to unfortunately shoulder the outcry and repercussions in order to show other ‘closet homosexual footballers’ that being gay in the world of sport isn’t a reason to live a career, and more importantly a life, shrouded in fear.
Homosexuality within the masculine nature of football is such a taboo subject, a subject that threatens alpha male security and raises so many potential concerns such as the idea of team mates showering together, potential team mate relationships and rooming on away trips which are some of the most common points that crop up when we talk about it in dressing rooms. Although, if team mates were in a relationship that would surely solve the rooming problem, no? However, I’d like to think the vast majority of the footballing fraternity would accept and cope with the situation, using a form of banter like my last sentence which is the usual dressing room way of dealing with difficult subjects, and simply evolve with the sport.
As for the fans reaction, well that’s a completely different story, a naive view would suggest that a players own fans wouldn’t care less once the player performs in the shirt he wears, but in times of difficulty on the pitch would a player’s sexuality be used as an excuse and a reason to vent? Similarly, would he be an easy target of abuse for opposition fans and players? Would a gay player find moving club a futile effort? Would his selection in a team be jeopardised because of his sexuality, or by the same token would a manager be reluctant to omit a gay player for fear of being labelled a bigot? So many questions, but I guess only time will tell. If history has taught us anything, it’s that barriers are there to be broken down and it’s only a matter of time before we do see an actively playing, openly gay footballer. I honestly believe if a gay player has the support and respect of his club, and team mates more importantly, then the bile which would inevitably come from the terraces would eventually subside but we need everyone, in every aspect of football to unite in their view on equality and ensure that equality, above all else, prevails.
Whilst the announcement by Hitzlsperger has been viewed from all quarters as “a brave decision”, I can’t help but feel that the braver decision would have been to ‘come out’ whilst still playing, even if only for the last few months of his career to test the water if you will, and set a precedent that we could only advance from. However, it’s easy for someone like me to write such a point as I’ll never understand the difficulties that are faced by someone dealing with such a career and life changing decision. It would undoubtedly have had a defining effect on the subject of homosexuality in football and certainly would have proved if the football industry has evolved enough to deal with such a revelation, but alas, it wasn’t to be and who can blame Hitzlsperger for wanting a quiet end to a fantastic career in a rewarding but often brutal and draconian industry.