Friday, 10 January 2014

Thomas Hitzlsperger

A couple of Tweeters have been in touch to note that I hadn't commented on Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out earlier this week. Presumably this is because homosexuality in football is an issue I've returned to consistently since starting this blog (the last piece can be found here. That article contains links to all other pieces I've written on the subject).

There isn't a huge amount to say.

I, like the rest of humanity no doubt, hope that Hitzlsperger is a happier man now than he was a week ago, I wish him well and - I hope - that the overwhelming support of the football world has made it a little easier for the next player to come out. I always rather liked Hitzlsperger as a player and he has always come across in interviews and on the pitch as a thoroughly decent chap.

Moreover, I hope that people don't focus on his homosexuality. We don't define other footballers by their heterosexuality. We define them by what they achieved on the pitch and how they conducted themselves on the pitch.

Yes, of course, in the short-term (as I am doing) people will discuss the matter but, ultimately, who he lives with and who he loves is irrelevant. He shouldn't be thought of as ''the gay footballer'' but rather as a footballer. He just happens to be gay.

There is little doubt that Hitzlsperger at this stage is the highest profile player to come out. He played at the World Cup (finishing third), at the European Championships (where he was a runner up) and captained Stuttgart to the Bundesliga title. He scored the decisive goal in that title run-in. I doubt a better goal has ever won a title.

Because of this profile, some have already criticised him from coming out after retirement. How dare they?

The decision to come out - or not - is a profoundly personal one no doubt made infinitely more difficult because of the sometimes hostile environment of, and within, football towards homosexuals. Never mind that Hitzlsperger himself has noted that it is only relatively recently that he has become fully aware of his sexuality himself.

During his career, Hitzlsperger worked against racism, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination. It is not surprising
 then that as he has come out so publicly he now wishes to move the discussion forward and, tellingly, wants to contribute to that discussion.

When Robbie Rogers came out last year there was a disappointment from many that he didn't want to be a standard bearer for gay rights within the game. I felt that Rogers didn't need to - he might, heaven forfend, just want to live his life. If Hitzlsperger wants to take an active role in the debate then that could be huge for the game. An eloquent, multi-lingual, likeable, and successful player making a case that any right-thinking person agrees with? This should be easy. Let's hope it is. All power to his elbow.

One day a player coming out won't be an issue. Hitzlsperger's brave decision, and enthusiasm for the debate, makes that day a little closer.


1 comment:

LibDem Spuddy said...

RCM knows I'm not a football fan but he did ask me to comment the last time this issue came up because we’ve chatted about it before. I failed to do so then but now I wish to.

I want to address the somewhat unfair criticism Thomas Hitzlsperger has received for coming out after his retirement. It is unfair but it is from a certain point of view understandable. I think this sort of commentary is born of a deep disappointment that we’re not there yet. Not quite the out and proud Premiership footballer we’d like to see. So close.

Elsewhere a commenter said that he thought football and footballers are put under too much pressure to respond to political pressures. I disagree. When social groups make progress to acceptance, often the (uppercase P) Political win in Parliament is the easy bit. But it is the political win in the real world that matters.

Football should always be centrally about the sport, the game itself, its outcomes and the joy and pain thereof. But let’s not forget that the crowd and the players reflect all the other politics too. Catholic and Protestant, Black and White, native and immigrant, gangs and gang culture, tribalism, class, youth culture and fashions. You know, all the complex, messy business of belonging in a diverse world.

Football is the game for everyone. It is still very much the sport of the working classes and long may it be so, I say. Let us acknowledge that those Common Men and Women do have deeply held values and they are often conservative ones. Despite the welcome Political wins for the gay community, when society has said “Yes, you’re part of us now” it’s not unreasonable for those groups to want to be part of football and reflected in it, the (lower case p) political win.

I find it hard not to be emotional when I think of the young lads and lasses that play in the back lanes of my working class home town in the North of England. Wearing the replica shirt with the name, often foreign, of a player who earns as much in a week as his mam and dad do in 2 years. And they worship their heroes as gods. For every 30 of these kids I see, more than likely, one is a young gay lad or lass. Wouldn’t be great, I think, if that 8 year old kid could grow up to be themselves from the word go, with nothing to hide and be part of the sport they so love? And that is so much the harder when there is nothing to challenge the status quo.

In a diverse and increasingly secular society the Premiership and its players truly are the New Olympus – mighty, all conquering and awesome. The Gods of old, like us, were divided and competitive. They differed and squabbled, won and lost and tempted Fate. And they loved, in many ways more than one. Like the Ancients, so do we and so do the New Olympians themselves. We know it, we know they’re there. The gay players are silent and invisible for now, if only we could see them. Then, that little lad in the back lanes can say “I’m like him! I want to be like him when I grow up! Did you see that the goal on Saturday? Awesome!” and nothing else will matter.