Part and parcel of being a modern day football fan is defending the game you love from its critics. It could be someone decrying the lack of passion in football and the way money has become so important, or a scathing attack on the levels of diving and cheating to be seen in the sport’s premier competitions.
Most football followers can easily rebut these criticisms with no more than playful banter. Events earlier this month, however, brought a much more endemic and serious problem back into the public focus, that of the attitude towards homosexuality within the game.
Thomas Hitzlsperger is not a name that would have resonated strongly outside of football circles before this month. A talented and solid midfielder best known for his spells with Aston Villa and Stuttgart, and capped 52 times for Germany, he was a bright spot on mid-table sides without ever setting the world on fire. This all changed on the 8th of January, when he was thrust into the wider public spotlight after coming out as gay.
This was the first coming out of a player of any sort of stature since Justin Fashanu, and Hitzlsperger was immediately praised across the board for the potentially ground-breaking step. Players, both past and present, sent messages of support and commendation.
Tabloid newspapers both in Britain and his native Germany praised his bravery, with The Sun somewhat surprisingly giving the story front-page coverage, using Hitzlspergers’ bravery to contrast with the perceived boorish and self-centred behaviour of many players.
While the overwhelming positivity towards the announcement was fantastic for both Hitzlsperger and society at large, his coming out also sparked a discussion of football’s willingness to accept gay footballers. Not since the suicide of Fashanu, who killed himself out of fear of not getting a fair trial over a sexual assault allegation, had the footballing world examined how homosexuality fitted within the sport.
In the midst of the debate, an extract from the autobiography of former Chelsea and England international Graeme Le Saux began circulating once again, a chilling account of the ostracism and psychological abuse he suffered simply because some within his profession suspected him of being gay.
Taunted by even his own teammates for his university lifestyle and holiday preferences, Le Saux painted a picture where any deviation from the formulaic laddish personality perpetuated within the dressing room would lead to questions over one’s sexuality.
He also gave his account of the abhorrent instances of abuse he suffered on the field of play from supposed role models Paul Ince and Robbie Fowler, not to mention the years of homophobic chants directed towards him by opposition fans.
The raw insight given by Le Saux showed how severe a problem football has with homosexuality, a stark contrast to the apparent enlightenment Hitzlsperger’s coming out had birthed. That said, it would be naïve to suggest that most people wouldn’t have suspected a homophobic element within the game before Le Saux’s account had been published.
Homophobic slurs have for decades been a firm derogatory favourite of both crowds and players, leaving an outside viewer with no question as to how homosexuality is regarded in the game. The question must then be asked: how does football compare with other sports in terms of accepting gay competitors and players?
The answer does not make for pleasant reading for ardent fans. Comparing football with almost any other sport in this area sees football lagging woefully behind. Tennis, basketball, rugby, GAA and athletics have all welcomed gay athletes, and while the number of athletes willing to come out may not be much greater than in football, at least the potential backlash from supporters and colleagues is not as vitriolic or potentially damaging as it is within the “beautiful game.”
Even in women’s football, lesbian players have been championed as stars and heroes, an irony saddening in nature, with their male counterparts so closely connected yet so far removed from their culture of tolerance and universal respect.
The acceptance of homosexual athletes is a debate that has been raging in America too, ever since Jason Collins of the NBA became the first male athlete from one of the main professional sports to come out. The overall consensus was positive, although a number of basketball players expressed a certain wariness over accepting a gay teammate.
This perhaps can be linked back to a potential cause of football’s problem, with the perceived need to have a dressing room teaming with masculinity and a unity of persona to thrive.
It might be correct to say that the issues surrounding football being accepting of homosexuality stem from more deep-rooted causes than a look at anecdotal evidence might reveal. Perhaps it’s down to the moral compass of the predominantly white, working-class background of its fans and players, or a residual stereotype of gay men being effeminate and the antithesis of the manly ideals football supposedly represents.
A practical answer, though, is that football’s difficulty assimilating itself with homosexuality is too complex an issue to be simplified down to any single root cause.
The courageous actions of Thomas Hitzlsperger in coming out are a huge positive step forward, but as has been remarked by countless LGBT groups in the immediate aftermath, until a footballer coming out becomes a non-descript and unremarkable piece of news, the problem within football will remain.