By George Friend, the Middlesbrough defender
LAST week, former Premier League footballer and German international Thomas Hitzlsperger boldly announced that he was gay. He is the first German and Premier League player to do so.
He is also one of only four professionals in football history to publically declare his sexuality – and arguably the most high profile.
He has followed in the footsteps of Justin Fashanu, English-born Anton Hysen, who plays in Sweden and is the brother of former Sunderland winger Tobias and, more recently, former Leeds midfielder Robbie Rogers.
Hitzlsperger’s recent comments about his homosexuality have reignited the issue within football.
There will be other players who are gay and remain anxious or frightened to come out, fearing the consequences for their careers.
There are 92 football clubs within England’s top four divisions, consisting of more than 5,000 professional players. Nearly 1.5 per cent of the UK’s population openly admits to being gay, therefore it is almost a statistical certainty that there are more gay players within the English game.
There is, of course, the counter-argument that the 5,000-plus players are hiding nothing.
Although unlikely, this may be plausible as throughout my career I have never sensed that any team-mate is concealing their sexual orientation.
Within the celebrity world of gay pop stars and actors, breaking the news of homosexuality is now considered somewhat mundane. Yet football is different.
For a player, it is not just the reaction of team-mates, the manager and staff. Of more concern, perhaps, is the public’s view, the media and particularly the response of the fans.
Rugby union player Gareth Thomas, Wales’ most-capped international, announced he was gay in 2009. In a sport widely regarded as one of the toughest and most testosterone-driven in the world, Thomas’ public disclosure has been widely accepted and respected by the majority of people.
WILL it take a similarly high-profile footballing hero, even greater than experienced German international Thomas Hitzlsperger, to break the taboo, or is the world of football too ruthless and cruel to ever accept such news?
There is reticence and fear surrounding coming out, and perhaps retirement for players, rather than being coincidental, is indicative of a wider homophobia within the game.
There have been many high-profile players, managers and even British politicians speaking out in support regarding Hitzlsperger’s decision to go public about his sexuality.
Former Middlesbrough striker Dean Windass recently said in the Hull Daily Mail: ‘‘It’s a credit to him, but I wish he had come out when he was still playing in the Premier League.
‘‘It wouldn’t have mattered a jot to me if my team-mate was gay, it’s what’s inside that matters.
‘‘Hopefully, Hitzlsperger’s decision will persuade others in the same position to come out.
If one of my team-mates was gay, I’d have had plenty of banter with them.
‘‘I am proud of what Hitzlsperger said and hope more gay footballers follow in his footsteps.’’ So does the issue rest more with some of the fans? We all appreciate the immense power of chants from the terraces, and there is already homophobic abuse from supporters towards ‘‘straight’’ players, so it is sure to be intensified when directed at a player who has announced he is gay.
RACISM and sexuality remain two of the several controversial issues football constantly needs to tackle. Hitzlsperger has shown huge bravery in what he has done.
However, you cannot help but feel that the mould inside the very narrow-minded world of football will not be broken until a current professional player stumps up the courage to publicly declare their sexuality.
From football fans to club chief executives, there is a combined responsibility to respect all those who we come into contact with, be it footballers, management, officials or supporters.
Sometimes simple morals and values can be overshadowed by the bright lights and hysteria surrounding professional football.
Ultimately, it is the diverse communities of people, young and old, black and white, gay or straight, that keep football alive and so great in this country.