Thomas Hitzlsperger should never be forgotten for the role he’s played in changing football

Homosexuality remains football’s ultimate, least spoken taboo.

Former convicts are integrated back into the game as soon as their sentences are over; footballers who bite fellow professionals under the watching eye of millions around the world in the most prestigious competition the beautiful game has to offer earn £75million moves to Barcelona; those found guilty of racist language or violent conduct are given multi-game suspensions before their sins are forgotten almost instantaneously. But in the liberal world of 2017, 13 years after Civil Partnerships became legal in Britain, the sport still hasn’t come to terms with the idea of one footballer loving another man.

According to the most recent surveys, 13% of British men are either gay or bisexual; so, it speaks volumes that there’s not a single openly gay footballer in the Premier League or Football League – British or otherwise – from the thousands involved. It also makes said scenario statistically impossible. Football may contain homophobic elements that deter gay men from becoming professionals, but it can’t be the only profession in the world without a single gay man. The truth is that we’re watching gay footballers week in, week out – we’re just unaware of their sexual orientation.

Rightly or wrongly, Justin Fashanu remains the case study, having committed suicide eight years after coming out in the press. The prevailing myth is one of prejudice and intimidation pushing the late Norwich forward into taking his own life; but the reality was rather different. Fashanu returned to London and hanged himself after being accused of sexual assault in America – a year after he’d stopped playing professionally. Maybe the abuse he received was part of the parcel, maybe it had nothing to do with it.

Nonetheless, the myth rings louder than the truth and the harrowing tale of Fashanu’s demise has served as the cautionary fable ever since, convincing gay footballers not to come out. In British football, Robbie Rogers is the solitary exception – and even he only revealed his sexual orientation once his contract with Leeds United had come to an end in 2013, subsequently returning to MLS.

Misconceptions of Fashanu’s death aside, there are obvious reasons for modern day footballers not to come out. Targeting sexual deviance as a weakness has always been part of terrace culture; fans call referees the W-word and accuse Arsene Wenger of enjoying the company of young children for the same reason crowd mentality will lead thousands of completely sexually liberal men to verbally abuse a gay footballer.

Dressing room culture is equally part of the problem. Certain phrases are intended harmlessly in the name of good banter, but the subliminal consequence is a perception of non-acceptance. Once again, any hint of weakness is an opportunity for team-mates to capitalise on, even if initially meant in jest, whilst individuality can also be viewed as dangerous in a team sport.

However, the sad truth is that no footballer has come out while still playing because nobody wants the burden. Managers don’t want to field questions on it in their weekly press conferences, clubs don’t want their public relations departments to continually juggle it with other priorities and players – perhaps more understandably – don’t want the added pressure of being the only openly gay footballer. They certainly don’t want that to be what they’re remembered for over achievements on the pitch.

But there are signs of the situation changing, and today’s birthday boy Thomas Hitzlsperger could play a significant part in that. Nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ for his crunching tackles and piledriving shots, the German international was a real warrior on the pitch, one who defied preconceptions of homosexuality through the style of his play. He was a quality footballer too; making over 100 Premier League appearances and representing his country in the 2006 World Cup semi-final.

Embraced by Aston Villa and Germany fans in particular and never accused of effeminacy prior, his decision to come out after retiring in 2013 felt like a real turning point in the battle to end homophobia in football – something that would open the eyes of those on the terraces and in the changing rooms.

Of course, coming out whilst still playing would have had a far bigger impact, but for reasons already discussed, that still seems impossible for footballers in 2017. Yet, Hitzlsperger may have started a trend of coming out upon retirement that if followed up, could lead to a more accommodating world for gay players, as the line between playing and post-playing becomes slowly irrelevant.

Right now, that still feels a very long way off. Players clearly still feel secrecy is in their best interests, at least until they hang up their boots. But if I see an openly gay footballer in my lifetime, I’ll know the beautiful game has changed for the better – and I’ll never forget the crucial rule Hitzlsperger has played in making it a more accepting place. Happy Birthday Hammer, I hope it’s a good one.