But authorities' support still half-hearted
15 January ~ In September 2012, Thomas Hitzlsperger told the German magazine Die Zeit in an interview about homosexuality in football that a German player might come out "in a year's time perhaps". No one suspected, however, that Hitzlsperger himself would be the player to do so – at the same time as he predicted, and in the same magazine. "I'd like to advance the public discussion about homosexuality among professional sportsmen," Hitzlsperger explained during an interview in January.
"I'd like to do so by stating in public that the sexual orientation of a sportsman should be his own business, because there's simply nothing unnatural about this. I also feel that this is a good moment to do so. The Olympic Games in Sochi are coming up and I think we need critical voices against a number of governments' anti-homosexual campaigns."
The reaction of German clubs, players and sports officials has been overwhelmingly positive, although notably few public figures have met Hitzlsperger's challenge to speak up about Sochi, or indeed the homophobic laws in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup hosts. Whereas Wolfgang Niersbach, the president of the German Football Association (DFB), spoke of Hitzlsperger as a "role model" for whom he had the "highest respect", the DFB has been criticised for its increasingly half-hearted support of gay players who still feel that they have to hide their sexuality.
For the fact remains that Hitzlsperger only felt able to come out after his active career had finished – indeed he was advised against doing so while still playing for VfL Wolfsburg. German supporters have become much more tolerant in this respect. Fortuna Düsseldorf and Werder Bremen have organised anti-homophobic choreographies at matches, and Tennis Borussia Berlin supporters launched the campaign "Football fans against homophobia", whose banner can be seen on its travels through German stadiums. Yet as Andreas Fine of the lesbian and gay 1FC Cologne fan club Andersrum rut-wiess pointed out in a recent interview, there are still problems with ultra groups in other cities: "We don't have a particularly easy time on the terraces," Fine said. "We're not always accepted."
Hitzlsperger's most immediate contribution, it seems, will be to end the German media's unhealthy obsession with unmasking the first gay footballer in the Bundesliga. Intentionally or otherwise, the tabloid search for a gay Bundesliga star in recent years created an aura about homosexuality of at best exoticism, and at worst abnormality, which Hitzlsperger's articulate interview persona has already done much to dissipate. Although he has rejected taking on the role of a "gay icon", Hitzlsperger's media-friendly presence might just create a more relaxed atmosphere around the topic that could encourage gay players to follow his lead while remaining active on the pitch. Paul Joyce