Hundreds of footballers in Germany have signed up to a campaign by football culture magazine "11Freunde" ("11 Friends") to offer their support for LGBTQ colleagues and take a stand against homophobia.
The magazine's latest issue, which comes out this week, has several different covers featuring different footballers holding signs reading: "Ihr könnt auf uns zählen!" ("You can count on us!")
Among the cover's stars are Bundesliga players Max Kruse and Christopher Trimmel of Union Berlin, as well as Dedryck Boyata and Niklas Stark of Hertha Berlin. Sebastian Ohlsson of second-division side St. Pauli and German international goalkeeper Almuth Schult are also included.
In total, over 800 players from both the men's and women's games have signed up to the campaign that organizers say isn't about forcing anybody to come out — but rather focused on offering support and creating a more understanding environment.
"Even in 2021, there is still no openly homosexual player in professional men's football," read a statement shared by Germany and Wolfsburg captain Alexandra Popp, and Borussia Dortmund Chief Executive Hans-Joachim Watzke, among others.
"The fear of being attacked or excluded or of endangering one's career as a professional football is evidently still so big that gay footballers still believe they have to hide their sexuality."
"We want to support, encourage and, if necessary, defend you against attacks, because you would be doing the right thing, and we are on your side."
Lahm advises against footballers coming out
Former Stuttgart, Aston Villa and Germany star Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay after ending his active career, tweeted that the campaign was "another step in the right direction."
But his former international teammate Philipp Lahm, meanwhile, has issued a note of caution in his new book.
"At the moment, it seems to me that there is little chance that a player could successfully come out in the Bundesliga and come away only halfway unscathed," writes Germany's 2014 World Cup winning captain in his upcoming book Das Spiel: Die Welt des Fussballs ("The Game: The World of Football").
"The responsibility would be too big for me," he continues, adding that he would be concerned about "abuse, insults and other defamatory comments" from the stands. "Who could bear that, and for how long?"
Lahm himself appeared on the cover of LGBTQ magazine "FRONT" in 2007, saying in an interview: "If a player is gay, he's still my teammate and my relationship with him wouldn't change at all. I am happy to live in a liberal, open society in which tolerant co-existence is possible without discriminatory prejudices."
But, he says, he is still concerned about the levels of acceptance in the game today.
Changes in German fan culture
However, while football crowds in Germany do remain predominantly masculine and heterosexual, German football and fan culture has become increasingly diverse and welcoming in recent years, and discriminatory songs, chants and comments are slowly being questioned.
Hardcore supporters and ultras at second-division Hamburg side St. Pauli, for example, are well known for their anti-homophobic and other anti-discriminatory stances, and have regularly produced eye-catching choreographies with messages such as "Love who you want" and "All colours are beautiful."
In Dortmund, fans involved with the anti-discrimination "Ballspiel vereint!" initiative have produced graffiti artwork under the famous Yellow Wall at the Westfalenstadion, while stickers from the group proclaim: "White pitch, red earth, yellow wall, colourful BVB!"
And following the launch of 11Freunde's campaign on Wednesday, German fans and football journalists also began sharing photos of themselves holding the message: You can count on us.
"I can understand anybody who would prefer not to face up to it," said Union Berlin striker Max Kruse. "But if one of my teammates came out, I'd protect him from the idiots out there."
While men's football is still waiting for its first active openly gay player, women's football has proven to be more progressive. German double-winners Wolfsburg even have a married couple in their squad in the form of Anna Blässe and Lara Dickenmann.
"On the pitch, it doesn't matter who you fancy, it's about your performance," said Wolfsburg and Germany captain Popp. "If someone came out, I actually believe it would be something of a liberation which could help boost their performance by one or two percent.
"It's important for all of us to send a message."