In the coming days and weeks, there will be thousands upon thousands of words written about how brave Thomas Hitzlsperger has been and while these words of support and praise are to be commended the stand out phrase from the interviews the former German international has given to date still remains:
“I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards.”
So let’s try our best to do it right now, not in a focus group years down the line, or when the next footballer, active or not, decides that the time is right to offer up his sexuality as a sacrifice for the discussion to be moved just another baby step further forward. It’s not going to be perfect but I’m going to give it a try. Firstly, let us not forget that, although he is the most high profile, Hitzlsperger is not the first footballer to reveal he is gay, both Anton Hysen and Robbie Rogers have made themselves involuntary martyrs for football’s last great taboo and they too were praised for their courage but how far has their courage really moved the debate forward?
Personally I think there are two ways you could look at this. In the first instance you could look at the way Robbie Rogers was actively encouraged back into the game as an indication of football’s growing acceptance of a lifestyle that has long been part of the norm in modern society. Conversely though you could say that the fact he only felt comfortable in making his revelation from the relative safety of early retirement as an indictment to the dated perception of homosexuality in and around our football grounds. At this juncture it’s worth noting at this point that at the time of his retirement Rogers was plying his trade within the United Kingdom and this is why we need to move the debate on from words and onto actions.
However with that said it is important to recognise that the football community in the UK has been at the forefront of the ‘acceptance’ movement with players, manager and even Match of the Day host Gary Lineker sporting rainbow laces in support of their colleagues. This, however, is not an issue that should be left to those involved in the game to solve, this is one that we, as lovers of the game, can help alter and change right now.
In the days following Hitzelsperger’s announcement, John Amaechi, the NBA’s first openly gay player labelled the culture surrounding football as ‘toxic’, and although a tad sensationalist in its terminology it clearly highlighted the feelings of many out with the game that football’s attitude to homosexuality would be placed on the evolutionary scale beside the man chasing a mammoth with a spear.
Football, however, has always proved it can change.
Think of a fan beside you hurling monkey chants and throwing banana’s at a player of African descent and the shock and horror that you are your fellow onlookers would feel at such behaviour. Has that shock and horror always been so prevalent? No.
To give another example, in Scotland, sectarianism still lurks in the shadows of the countries most famous derby between Rangers and Celtic, but efforts continue to close that divide. It’s staggering to think that it was only as little as 15 years ago that Rangers appointed their first Catholic captain in Lorenzo Amoruso. Should it have taken so long? No, but they still did it.
Am I saying that elements of racism, bigotry and other discriminatory behaviour are not still to be found in the game? Of course not, but the backlash for players and fans alike will continue to grow if such behaviours continue. It is no longer seen appropriate to have a laugh because a player is black or because a player crosses himself before stepping onto the field of player so why should it be any different if he’s gay.
As a member of the Tartan Army, known for championing just how great we are, I am privy to a repertoire of songs designed to help drive our nation to a level somewhere above the mediocrity we perpetually reside in. Amongst all the ‘Doe-A-Deer’s’ and ‘We’ll be Coming Down the Roads’ is an ode to former England international Jimmy Hill that goes like this:
“We hate Jimmy Hill, he’s a poof, he’s a poof.”
Now there is no doubt in my mind that for the dwindling number of fans that sing the words above it is done so with harmless intentions, but it should perhaps be seen as a telling insight into how far football fans have to come to catch up with the rest of the world around it. This doesn’t have to be solely in the form a song, it could come from the pensioners four rows behind shouting about a player’s ‘boyfriend’ as he lies injured on the pitch. It could even be as simple as a group of mates sitting in the pub, watching the game talking as if no one is listening.
While FIFA continue to trumpet their crusade for inclusion and diversity by hosting World Cups in Russia and Qatar, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in these countries homosexuality is perceived as a crime, it is up to us as fans to prove that football is indeed as inclusive as Sepp & Co. advertise. The actions of Thomas Hitzlsperger, Robbie Rogers and Anton Hysen should be praised as the catalyst for this debate, it is now up to us to turn this debate into actions.