Friday 19 January 2018

Outside the box: Positive Hitzlsperger reaction doesn't have to be a negative

The reaction to Thomas Hitzlsperger’s revelation that he was gay was almost universally positive
The reaction to Thomas Hitzlsperger’s revelation that he was gay was almost universally positive
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Last week, Graeme Le Saux wrote something which didn't get as much attention as it should have in the days after Thomas Hitzlsperger announced that he was gay. "Thankfully, attitudes are changing, slowly but surely," said the former Chelsea full-back on Twitter about how the game deals with homosexuality.

Le Saux did get plenty of attention, however, when extracts of his autobiography reappeared following Hitzlsperger's revelation under the headline 'How gay slurs almost wrecked my career'.

It's a jolting and superbly written piece which details the bullying Le Saux had to endure at Chelsea in the early part of his career for being outside the dressing-room banter bubble as well as being on the receiving end in an infamous incident with Robbie Fowler at Stamford Bridge.

It is also from a book written (as he said himself in the same tweet) eight years ago, about the Fowler incident which happened 15 years ago, while his descriptions of when it all started in a dressing-room full of "characters" at Chelsea came from the summer of 23 years ago.

It would be naive to argue that it wouldn't be difficult for an active player to come out but, equally, to frame the current attitude of the game based on a despicable incident which happened in the last century isn't exactly comparing like with like.

Fowler and Robbie Savage -- neither of whom distinguish themselves in Le Saux's book -- were both on BBC's 'Football Focus' last weekend and both admitted their regret about the incident, while the former Liverpool striker went as far as saying it wouldn't be a problem for players to come out.

"Years ago it probably would have been more of a problem on the terraces," said Fowler on Saturday. "I don't think it would have been in the dressing-room, certainly it wouldn't be a problem in a dressing- room now. I don't think it would be a problem on the terraces now."

Fowler also apologised for the Le Saux incident describing it as "wrong", while Savage couldn't recall another moment described by Le Saux, but added: "Going back to my days, if somebody came out in a dressing-room I played in, you would see him no different. Nothing would change."

Obviously, you wouldn't expect either to say anything different, but it was another example of how football actually reacted to Hitzlsperger's announcement, rather than how people imagine they might have.

There has been almost universal praise for Hitzlsperger from players, media and supporters, while dissenting voices have been debated into the flat-earth sector where they belong. And yet, the narrative remains that the game is fundamentally homophobic, with condemnation about the culture of the dressing-room coming from many who have never been in one.

DESPERATION

The desperation to put Hitzlsperger as the poster boy for homosexuality in football led to him being described as a "Premier League star" by one newspaper -- the same one which used 'Bender it like Beckham' when Louie Spence attended a party at the Beckhams -- which ignores the fact that he is retired and, even in his best days, could never really have been described as a 'star'.

We've been here before with Robbie Rogers, the former Leeds and Stevenage player who came out last year to far more media attention than he ever got as a player.

Like Rogers, there is no obligation on Hitzlsperger to be a leading light for gay players but while the headline on Rogers' first interview read 'Why coming out as gay meant I had to leave football', the one last month again pointed to a reaction which has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Nothing I'd expected has happened," revealed Rogers. "Most of what I feared hasn't happened either. It's been quite the opposite, with nothing but support and love from friends, team-mates, family."

Having initially retired, Rogers returned to the game with LA Galaxy and found that the dressing-room, too, had changed.

"The guys are definitely more sensitive when I'm in the locker-room. In that environment people aren't really aware what they're saying all the time. They might describe a couch, for example, as being 'gay', so sometimes you'll hear comments.

"They're not being homophobic and they won't even be talking to me. It'll just be a stream of consciousness. I'm not sensitive to that stuff any more."

Hitzlsperger admitted he looks forward to the day when "nobody mentions courage in these circumstances anymore, because it will be seen as totally normal that a sports person will speak about his homosexuality, the way others talk about their wives and girlfriends".

Dressing-rooms aren't always complimentary about wives, girlfriends or even mothers and it will be a peculiar, but real, sign of full integration when a player's boyfriend is thrown into the conversation. They mightn't be complimentary but, crucially, neither are they serious.

If a player comes out and is made a pariah by team-mates, opponents or the crowd, then the people dishing out the abuse will deserve every bit of vitriol that pours upon them.

Hitzlsperger said he was advised against coming out while playing at Wolfsburg two years ago by people who warned him that "a big wave will crash on you" and it would have been instructive had he revealed who those people were.

"But in the end I realised that nobody knows," he added. "There was no precedent, so everybody could only speculate on what would happen."

What has happened with Hitzlsperger, as it did with Rogers, has been overwhelmingly positive. The much-discussed nastiness and negativity, thankfully, remains speculation.

 

Tweets of the week

MONDAY

Aaron Ramsey (@aaronramsey)

Gutted for Theo, he'll come back stronger after this. Been fantastic for us so far this season. Have a speedy recovery mate.

Arsenal midfielder lends support to his team-mate after learning that he would miss the rest of the season.

TUESDAY

Michael Chopra (@MichaelChopra10)

F****** joke this come in training only 6 f****** players here then find out the fitness coach taken the session #joke

The Blackpool midfielder manages to get himself fined £10,000 for being unhappy with training. Although it may not be the quickest way he's lost that amount of money.

WEDNESDAY

Steven Reid @stevenreid12

World Cup in Mid season... #clueless #shambles #2022

The former Ireland international reflects the views of most of the Premier League -- and most of the football world.

THURSDAY

Robbie Fowler @Robbie9Fowler Getting a bit of stick for something that happened when I was a kid, naive and immature. I've apologised to @graemelesaux14, he accepted. Obviously embarrassed looking back, but sadly cannot change what happened, you learn from mistakes growing up, and that I have.

The former Liverpool striker responds to those criticising him for the infamous incident with Graeme Le Saux, which was reprised in the wake of Thomas Hitzlsperger's revelation.

FRIDAY

Curtis Davies @TheCurtisDavies Those who think I am somehow able to unsettle Shane long are obvs insecure. I have no link to him and if I were trying to why on earth would he listen to me?? #Deluded #ImNotHisWife.

The Hull defender denies trying to encourage the West Brom striker to sign for the club.

SATURDAY

Lee Peltier (@Pelts_86) Embarrassing sorry to the fans.

The Leeds player keeps the apology simple with a tweet one number shorter in words than the number of goals they conceded to Sheffield Wednesday.

SUNDAY

Joey Barton (@Joey7Barton)

Refs lost control of this. Nailed on red card for someone.

The QPR midfielder can always spot danger -- although he wasn't proved correct in the Newcastle game.

 

Bet You Should Have Done

Eden Hazard to score first against hull city, 6/1

No Chelsea striker managed to score an away goal in the Premier League for the whole of last year which meant the onus fell on the team's other creative players.

This season none have stepped up the plate more than the young Belgian who -- fresh from hearing that his manager values him at £100m -- netted Chelsea's crucial opener on Saturday.

Irish Independent

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