“In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room. I was never ashamed of being who I am but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays. You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting. Being gay is a topic that is ‘ignored’ in football and not ‘a serious topic in the changing room’. Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are.” -Thomas Hitzlsberger
Just when you think you’ve overcome the petty partisan loyalty that defines being a supporter, news breaks about a former player and memories—good ones, which come few and far between for Villa fans these
days years—come flooding back.
Thomas Hitzlsberger to me isn’t just a name, a memory from a highlight reel, a person known for something that doesn’t directly involve football. Der Hammer, along with a team with players like Nobby Solano, Ollie Melberg, Darius Vassell and my hero Martin Laursen, helped me through difficult mornings in Montreal in the cafes along St. Laurent Boulevard that were nice enough to put the game on at 7:45 AM, sometimes even with the sound on.
Watching Villa in those days was a lonely experience. I took ownership of those teams because I watched them by myself over an unread newspaper, bad coffee and dry bacon, while the snow piled up in a city that was smart enough to stay in bed. In a moment in my life marked by uncertainty and change, that 2003-2005 era Villa, in their not-very-fetching Hummel kits (so many chevrons), were my team, more than any that came before or after.
So when Hitzlsberger left with his head held high to Stuttgart, it came as an honest shock. Der Hammer for me would always be a Villan, in the same way that Mellberg never really left, even though there he was playing for Juventus. I followed his career with interest for a year or so after, and then like we all do, I moved on.
When news broke this morning that Hitz, who retired this past September, had come out as gay, familiar social reasoning kicked in among all the congratulatory Tweeting. “It’s a sad state of affairs that a man’s sexual orientation is news.” And I suppose that’s true, but it doesn’t explain the immense pride I feel in the man, nor does it explain why no top flight player in the major European leagues has come out as a gay despite constant public reassurances from clubs, players that they would be welcome.
None of us know what it’s like to be an elite footballer, only as valuable as your last performance, playing each and every week in front of tens of thousands of fans, often hostile by default. It may not be a hard life—these are people paid gobs of cash to kick a ball after all—but it can be a difficult one. Players know that while clubs, managers, fans and players say one thing out loud about homosexuality, things are different when decisions are made about who plays and who doesn’t and who to buy and who to sell. Behind football’s smiley face on gay rights, things are starkly different within the confines of a very conservative club culture.
This is why news that footballer has come out publicly matters. If you think we live in a post-homophobic world when it comes to elite sport, explain FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter advising gay and lesbian supporters to “refrain from sexual activity” while in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, or the remarks from a Russian judge over a refusal to allow a Pride House in the Olympic Village in Sochi, because “The aims of the organization contradict the basics of public morality and the policy of the state in the area of family motherhood and childhood protection,” or PSG’s Alex explaining today that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves,” This is before we even approach the bile that shows up routinely in comments sections the world round or in articles like this from respected writers.
As for Hitz, in the interview he mentioned he grew up in a Bavaria in which homosexuality was considered “unnatural or even criminal.” He made it through the sport and could have retired quietly as countless others have before him, as a respected Villan fondly remembered by fans from a certain era. Instead he’s subjected himself to the weird, obituary like tributes from the papers and bad, tired jokes, more homophobia disguised as “having a laugh.” But it matters because that’s one more example for another to look to in making a decision neither you or I know what it is to make. It’s one more step toward the tipping point.