The Not So Beautiful Game

In January 2014, Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first former international soccer player to come out, but as a retired player he won’t have to face any vitriol from the stands. Has Hitzlsperger begun the dismantling of football’s final taboo, asks Brian Finnegan?

 
Thomas-HitzlspergerOn Thursday, January 9, in the German newspaper, Die Zeit, former Premier League football and German international, Thomas Hitzlsperger announced that he is gay. The 31 year-old, who won 52 caps for Germany and played with Everton, West Ham and Aston Villa, immediately made world headlines, and garnered messages of support and congratulations from the likes of David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and ex-England Captain, Gary Lineker. Hitzlsperger’s announcement was described as “an important sign of our time” by Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski, while Hitzlsperger’s former team, Aston Villa said: “…along with our support as a club, we hope that everyone involved in the game extends to him their support as well.”

But while almost everyone in the game, including FIFA on its website, is extending their support to Hitzlsperger, it seems that this could be a case of all words and no action. In February last year when Leeds player, Robbie Rogers came out and then promptly retired, he referred to the “pack mentality” around homophobia in the changing room (he’s since returned to the game to play for LA Galaxy). “They (the players) often don’t mean what they say,” he said. “They’re trying to get a laugh, they’re trying to be the top guy. But it’s brutal. It’s like high school again – on steroids.”

In an interview published in The Guardian on January 8, Hitzlsperger agreed that there were incidents of crass homophobia in the dressing rooms, adding that the subject only came up “when people were speculating about someone’s sexuality, but never in their presence.”

Villa’s public support of Hitzlsperger suggests that the pack mentality that Rogers mentioned works the other way too. The team protects its own. However, it’s impossible for even the most bonded of teams to protect its players from the taunts of tens of thousands of fans. Ask any intelligent football fan about Hitzlsperger’s revelation and they’ll say he had to do it after he retired because his life would have been made unbearable by homophobic abuse from the stands if he was still playing.

On the day of Hitzlsperger’s announcement, Queen’s Park Rangers’ midfielder, Joey Barton tweeted: “Thomas Hitzlsperger has shown a lot of courage today. Sad times when people have to wait till they retire from their chosen profession before they feel other people will judge them solely on who the human being is. Shame on all of us as a society.”

A report compiled last April by the Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters Club (BHASC) points to the levels of homophobic bile that players who are perceived as being gay, or gay-friendly, are subject to while playing league football in the UK. Brighton is an area with a large number of LGBT residents, and the team has a strong contingent of LGBT supporters, which they are overly proud of. However, Brighton & Hove Albion fans have been subjected to homophobic abuse by at least 72 percent of the opponents they faced in the 2012-2013 season, in at least 70 percent of away games and in at least 57 percent of their matches. Abuse from the stands can range from chants of “Town full of faggots” to “What’s it like to suck cock?” and “Gay and you know you are”.

One shocking incident detailed in the report involved a Brighton supporter and his young son, who were in a group being taunted after a match against Millwall. The boy’s father was asked: “Do you pass him around?”

The report is full of details about letters of complaint sent by to various clubs and responses with apologies and promises to take action, but while a small number of individual clubs may try to make inroads, the problem of homophobia from the stands is rife and needs to be properly addressed by governing body of the global game, FIFA.

But how seriously does FIFA take the issue of homophobia in the football? The organisation has awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where homosexuality is punishable with three years of imprisonment. The sole response from FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter to questions about this, was that gay people “should refrain from sexual activities” when visiting Qatar for the tournament. Blatter has since apologised for his comments, but has said nothing else on the subject.

Meanwhile FIFA and the associations in each country have yet to properly clamp down on homophobia from the stands, the way they have zero tolerance for the racist abuse that was once a fixture at football matches.

According to gay NBA basketball star John Amaechi, “The truth is the people who run football are creating this environment. The fans follow the implicit lack of breadth when it comes to issues of difference from the top.”

The BHASC report was sent to FIFA, with a note including statistics from the British LGB charity Stonewall’s 2012 School Report, saying that 16 percent of gay and bisexual boys and 29 percent of gay and bisexual girls have attempted suicide in the UK, while 57 percent have thought about taking their own lives.

“We note that you don’t need to be LGB&T to be the victim of homophobia, nor do you need to have been a target of these chants,” the report said. “Not only are Brighton fans the victims but anyone hearing the chants, even those on the same side as the perpetrators can be seen as victims. It is impossible to assess what impact it might have on them.”

There might be some light at the end of the tunnel, however, from a very unexpected source. Following Hitzlsperger’s announcement, a leader editorial The Sun newspaper, once a redtop bastion of homophobia, condemned homophobes as a “moronic minority” and said it would “take almost superhuman bravery” for a current Premiership player to follow in Hitzlsperger’s footsteps. “For The Sun to run that front page sends a really powerful message to millions of readers and gay and lesbian people that it’s okay to be gay and that the world is changing,” Sam Dick, director of campaigns at Stonewall told The Guardian, with gay rights advocate, Peter Tatchell chiming in to say, “The Sun’s coverage mirrors a huge positive shift in public attitudes towards gay people.”

It’s hard to imagine how long it will take for this public shift in attitudes to trickle into the football to the stands and dressing rooms. In the meantime, given FIFA’s mediocre commitment to tackling homophobia in the sport, it’s highly unlikely that the media obsession with a current player coming out will bear fruit. As Robbie Rogers told one journalist when asked what the thought the reaction might be if he were to line up for Leeds against the likes of Millwall: “Woah! I can’t even think about that.”

A week after Hitzlsperger came out, semi-pro player with Gainsborough Trinity, Liam Davis, now at the beginning of his career, pinned his own rainbow colours to the mast. “At the age of 23 I like to think that I’ve got a good number of years left in the game and a lot of time to make a stand,” he said. “I personally hope that over the next 10 years I?m not the only gay footballer out there.”

It’s highly likely that he won’t, but with a media obsessed with the first active professional player to come out, while FIFA pays little more than lip-service to tackling homophobia in football, closeted professional footballers currently in the game have a lot of pressure on their shoulders. They should take heart from Thomas Hitzlsperger’s eloquence in the aftermath of his coming out. “I have taken a conscious decision to confront publicly the prejudice and hostility shown towards homosexuals,” he said.

“I have nothing to be ashamed of. “It won’t be easy for the next person to be truly the first in that regard, but maybe I’ve been able to help them a tiny bit.”

 

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