Former Aston Villa and VfB Stuttgart star Thomas Hitzlsperger recently announced that he was homosexual, joining a very small number of footballers to come out in the open about their homosexuality. Here is a look at the difficulties faced by gays in football and a plea for change.

The Plague Of Homophobia

Hitzlsperger has hopefully inspired more gay players to come out and still go on to achieve success (Image courtesy itv.com)

ai???Secrets can cause so much internal damage. People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple.ai??? Most of us would agree with these words of former footballer Robbie Rogers. But when this ai???secretai??? is considered a vice, a trait that makes this vicious world lessen you, is it really worth coming out into the public?

ai???For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear. Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations,ai??? continued Robbie Rogers on his personal blog. ai???Fear that my loved ones would be farthest from me if they knew my secret. Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams.ai???

Rogersai??i?? homosexuality had to be kept a secret from his friends, family and the entire football fraternity so it didnai??i??t jeopardize his future in the sport. ai???Dreams of going to a World Cup, dreams of The Olympics, dreams of making my family proud. What would life be without these dreams? Could I live a life without them?ai??? But the need to open up to his loved ones and lead a normal life was far more important than his career dreams. Would a secret life even be possible alongside the stardom of sport?

ai???Life is only complete when your loved ones know you. When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love. Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret.ai???

Despite giving away the one thing that kept his life together ai??i?? football ai??i?? Rogers had removed a mammoth burden off of his chest. It seemed close to impossible for a growing star to publicly admit that he was homosexual in a sport that can be incredibly homophobic. The clichAi?? of ai???gays are softai??? doesnai??i??t fit into the macho world of football. This masculinity hungry world of football feels wronged by the entire notion of homosexuality.

As Attitudeai??i??s Colin Crummy points out, ai???Historically, even being perceived as gay has not been a breeze.ai??? Greame Le Sauxai??i??s torrid time against homophobia is no secret to fans of English football. Le Saux, married to Mariana Le Saux and father of Lucas and Georgina, was taunted throughout his career for being gay.

ai???For 14 years I had to listen to that suggestion repeated in vivid and forthright terms from thousands of voices in the stands,ai??? says Le Saux. ai???It was a lie. I am not gay and never have been, yet I became a victim of English footballai??i??s last taboo.ai???

So extreme were the effects of this taunting that the former Chelsea star even considered retirement.

ai???The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football. I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going.ai???

“I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors.ai???

Le Sauxai??i??s hardship with homophobia wasnai??i??t limited to taunts from the terraces. Legendary Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler jeered at Le Sauxai??i??s apparent homosexuality by pulling down his shorts and sticking his rear end towards the Chelsea player. Even Le Sauxai??i??s marriage wasnai??i??t enough to shut Fowler up as he went on to say, ai???Yeah, so was Elton John mateai???.

Prior to the European Championships in 2012, rumors began to float about that there were two players in the Italian squad who were ai???secretlyai??? homosexual. Star striker Antonio Cassanoai??i??s reaction to this was, ai???their problem (but) I hope there isn’t one (a homosexual) in the national team.ai??? Although Cassano went on to retract this statement really soon, it shows the line of thinking, or lack of it, among players and fans. Le Sauxai??i??s views on Cassanoai??i??s statement were, ai???it just shows the level of misunderstanding in the world that we live in. A lot of attitudes are born out of ignorance.ai???

If the stories of Le Saux and Rogers seemed bad, that of Justin Fashanu will show you just how bad homophobia in this beloved game of ours can be. Back in the 80ai??i??s, Fashanu became the first footballer to openly come out as gay. So strong was homophobia back then that his coach, Brian Clough, prevented him from training with the rest of the team. Fashanuai??i??s career began to slide downwards from here on and there seemed to be no coming back. A host of small scale transfers saw Fashanu move to Canada, USA and New Zealand. On returning to the USA, Fashanu was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old in March 1998.

On 3 May 1998, he was found hanged in a deserted garage in London. In his suicide note he stated that the sex was consensual but his homosexuality would never allow him a fair trial. He also said, ai???I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.”

The most recent case of a player opening up publicly regarding his homosexuality is that of Thomas Hitzlsperger. The former German international retired from professional football last year and chose to tell the world of his sexual orientation only after the media spotlight was well and truly off of him. Having played in Germany, Italy and England, he believes that homosexuality isnai??i??t a ai???serious issueai??? in these countries but life as a homosexual footballer is always difficult.

ai???I was never ashamed of being who I am but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays,ai??? he says. ai???You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting.ai??? Had Hitzlsperger come out in the open during his playing days, things may well have been different but speculating in this case is pointless. The plus point here is that this is a stepping stone for gays in football. It shows that oneai??i??s sexual orientation has nothing to do with their mentality and ability as a player. Gay or straight, Hitzlspergerai??i??s thunderous left foot was what we all loved him for.

His announcement comes as great support for the entire homosexual footballing community, especially after German captain Philipp Lahmai??i??s statement from last year. It is high time football communities across the world accept homosexuality. Governing bodies need to take a strong stance against homophobia, just as they have towards racism.

More than anything, fans and the media need to turn their attention away from playersai??i?? lives. Oneai??i??s sexuality is completely personal and coming out in the open is oneai??i??s own choice. We need to stay out of their lives and support them as footballers. Appreciate and criticize on the football field, not when theyai??i??re choosing their partners.

Gay or straight, their performances on the field shall always enthrall us. We should be nothing but grateful that they perform and entertain us through this sport we all so dearly love. Our worries about their orientation need to go. And before that, homophobia.

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