There is only one Thomas Hitzlsperger

by Jonathan Todd

“Football,” according to The Times editorial on Friday, “is trapped in an intolerant culture that most other sports of the nation have passed by.” I’m sure the writer of this editorial drew upon close knowledge of many professional footballers in concluding “change has to come from the top”. If you ask footballers, though, they’d say that the most important change has to come from the sides; namely, the fans on the terraces.

What footballers “are all agreed on,” reports the Secret Footballer, probably Dave Kitson, “is that there is one very good reason that gay players would keep their sexual allegiance firmly in the locker: the fans.” This is hardly surprising if you think about it. “Would you come out and then travel round the country playing football in front of tens of thousands of people who hate you?”

It would take a super human courage to say, yes. In contrast, for a footballer to come out to the England captain, Steven Gerrard, wouldn’t seem such a big deal. Asked yesterday by Sky Sports how he’d handle this, Gerrard said he’d “certainly help to make his position a lot more comfortable … There certainly would be no problem in the dressing room. He’s a teammate and friend.”

It’s easy to dismiss this and insist that footballers must be more homophobic than others. But, I’d guess, broadly speaking, the people who work in football are no more open or closed minded than workers in most workplaces. Coming out to colleagues may be a challenge but I’m not convinced that if these colleagues are footballers that it would be any more of a challenge than if they were butchers, bakers or candlestick makers.

Yotam Ottolenghi, however, doesn’t travel the country baking in front of thousands of people who hate him. If he had to, no matter how tolerant his fellow chefs, perhaps he wouldn’t have publicly come out. As other worldly as this thought experiment is, it reinforces the Secret Footballer’s claim that the biggest barrier to gay players revealing themselves is the fans.

Rather than anti-Semitic chants, West Ham fans might celebrate a former player by singing, “there is only one Thomas Hitzlsperger”. While the retired player has been widely applauded for coming out, including by players themselves, such a chant remains unlikely.

It’s easy, superficially attractive and not completely without purpose to call, as The Times does, for change at the top of football. Many others look in the same direction. Perhaps they imagine that Gerrard has a wand that he can wave to make everything alright.

It’s harder for football fans to look into their hearts and find the resolve to confront intolerance and celebrate diversity amid the intense tribalism and hateful terraces. These terraces are populated with ordinary people. In most of their lives, they are as liberal in their attitudes as the rest of society. But, like all people, they behave differently in groups.

In this context, it’s the norm to exploit any weaknesses identified in opponents. Whatever is likely to encourage the representatives of your tribe on the pitch and discourage those of your rivals is fair game. It’s like PMQs without the suits and John Bercow’s ego.

Call me a dilettante but I’m more into supporting my team than spewing bile at others. I feel it’s possible to love the game, while continuing to hate the things that you hate outside of the game, such as hatefulness itself. I cringe, for example, at the hate that Manchester United induces in otherwise charming Liverpool fans and vice versa. It is unnecessary and unattractive. Even to say this, however, is to stray from tribal dictats.

For more players to come out, though, it is these group dynamics that must change, not Gerrard’s wand that must be waved. Gay players need to know that their sexuality won’t be seen as a weakness to be mercifully derided by opposing fans. They need to know that their fans will be behind them just as much as they always were.

This can be communicated by fans in the traditional way. I’ll try to get that Hitzlsperger chant going at the next match I go to.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “There is only one Thomas Hitzlsperger”

  1. Tafia says:

    The shameful side of this is FIFA and the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Why was it awarded to a country where homosexuality is a Capital offence and why is FIFA already advising the FAs of it’s member nations to inform gay fans and players to refrain from gay activities if they travel to Qatar.

    Why aren’t the government or the opposition or the FA or the PFA challenging this and being seen to challenge it?

    Because they are fannies and scared of upsetting the arabs is why.

Leave a Reply