Thomas Hitzlsperger (pictured above), a regular sight on the field for Germany's national matches over the past decade, sent shockwaves throughout the soccer world on Wednesday (08.01.2014) when he announced in a newspaper interview that he was gay.
DW: Is Wednesday's news unprecedented?
Klaus Heusslein: Yes. We have never seen anything like this before. There have been players from the lower leagues [Ed. note: of the German Bundesliga] who have made their homosexuality public, but, no, a player of this level has never done this.
What does this revelation mean, then, for German soccer?
Following the signing of the Berlin Declaration Against Homophobia last July - a document signed by government ministers, representatives from a number of first league clubs and the president of the German Football Association for the establishment of a more positive environment for both male and female players to come out - this is a first important step in the direction of more openness and acceptance.
We will have to see now how Hitzlsperger is received by his colleagues and what the reactions are from the leading figures in German football, but I am positive that this will be seen as a follow-up to the Berlin Declaration.
For me, I very much appreciate this step, this great and courageous decision, because it lends credibility to the efforts people have made for more openness towards homosexuality in sport.
How do you think Hitzlsperger's colleagues will react to the news?
I'm sure there will be those who say they "always knew" about his sexual orientation, and Hitzlsperger himself also made statements in public about what it would mean for any player to come out in Germany, warning that they might face negative responses and even that it might end their career.
We've seen similar statements from the captain of the German national team, Philipp Lahm, who said that gay footballers are best to hide it. Homosexuality is not yet welcome in this environment; it is an atmosphere in which players are evaluated based on their performance and their skills, not on their sexual orientation.
But this certainly doesn't reflect attitudes toward homosexuality in broader German society…
No: If you're an artist, or a politician - we've seen ministers and mayors who have come out - it is not a problem to make your homosexuality public. We've seen all kinds of artists who have come out, and there weren't any public issues with this. Or in other sports: take Martina Navratilova, for instance, the tennis star who came out 20 years ago and didn't encounter any problems. So it's more a football-specific problem.
And a gender-specific problem…
Yes, as a matter of fact there is a reverse stereotype that all women players are lesbians. This is of course not the case…
In terms of acceptance, where does Germany stand in comparison to the rest of Europe?
Well, in Germany, you would be able to count on the support of your national Football Association, and depending on which club you play for, you might be able to count on their support, too. This is why, in Germany, that the Berlin Declaration was so important. It forces the signatories to pledge their full support for homosexual players to come out.
As far as other countries go in Europe, to my knowledge there has never been a former national player to make his homosexuality public.
If I'm a gay footballer in Europe, where would I be best advised to come out?
Well, you would have better chances in the north, in Scandinavia, which is generally quite tolerant. It would also be okay in the Netherlands, Belgium, maybe France, but as you move down to the south and to Eastern Europe, it becomes much more difficult. In the former Yugoslavian countries, in Greece, it would be almost impossible for a professional player to come out there.
How dangerous would it be to come out in these countries?
Well, it probably wouldn't be a danger to their health, or a threat to their life, but their career would be ended in that country. I remember the statements of the head of Croatia's Football Association [Ed. note: Vlatko Markovic], when he said in 2010 that there would never be a gay player on the national team. In response to a follow-up question as to whether he had ever encountered a gay soccer player, he replied: "No. Fortunately, only healthy people play football."
This was actually sanctioned by UEFA, but this won't solve the problem. The situation there is still the same. If I were a gay player in such a country, I would seriously consider transferring to a different club outside of Croatia before coming out.
What is the source of this homophobia?
I believe here, too, that it is very much a football-specific issue. Take Italy, for instance, which is not generally known as a homophobic nation: this is one of the very few countries that does not have a law in place against homophobic aggression. Even in Hungary, which has a right-wing faction in its government, there is such legislation in place.
This means that in Italy anybody can publicly say, "No, we don't want to work together with this person because he is gay." And in terms of soccer, it would be unimaginable for an openly gay player to be on a high-level Italian team. I remember a remark from the former Italian national trainer [Ed. note Marcello Lippi] that there "are no gay soccer players." Full stop.
Do you think Hitzlsperger's coming out will serve as an impetus for other players to do the same?
Maybe, perhaps in Germany, yes. Speaking of Italy, the news is already all over the Italian papers, because he played for Lazio Rom. It's of course hard to say what effect this will have ultimately, but I am certain that it is a positive example and a step in the right direction.
Klaus Heusslein is the male co-president of the European Gay & Lesbian Sport Federation, which fights against discrimination based on sexual orientation in sport and supports the coming out of male and female athletes in Europe. He is based in Milan.