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Hitzlsperger Reaction Shows Acceptance Is on the Horizon

10/01/2014 11:36 GMT | Updated 12/03/2014 09:59 GMT

This week, ex-Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger moved from having status as another Premier league also-ran who retired having never truly justified his wage bill, to the rare pantheon of footballers who have had the courage to come out as gay.

Hitzlsperger is only the fourth man to have played professional football to do so, following Justin Fashanu, Anton Hysen and Robbie Rogers. Obviously, to do such a thing so publicly takes a lot of courage, for which he should be applauded.

However, Hitzlsperger cannot truly stand as a major turning point for football, a sport well noted for having an undercurrent of homophobia that occasionally, and horrifically, becomes a distinct overtone.

Hitzlsperger quit football last summer, before he came out, saying that there is "a long way to go" before a footballer at the very top level coming out at the prime of their career, and being accepted by fans and teammates alike, could possibly happen.

I don't know Hitzlsperger, or the exact working and reasoning behind his decision. What it appears to be to me, a neutral observer, is that Hitzlsperger feels he would have been subject to abuse and discrimination if he stayed in football as a gay man, and so in order to live a happy life, he needed to give up the dream that so many of us have had - being a professional sportsperson.

This decision has some logic behind it, given the tragedy that followed the first footballer to ply his trade in England and be openly homosexual. Justin Fashanu, whilst at Nottingham Forest, came out. He was disowned by his manager, Brian Clough - a decision which makes me wonder why we all view Clough as such a legend rather than a prejudiced and unpleasant individual - his family, the sport as a whole.

In 1990, faced with untrue allegations of sexually assaulting an underage boy, Justin Fashanu committed suicide. He was 37.

Since then, football has lived under a cloud when it comes to accepting homosexuality. Whilst the other three biggest sports in Britain - rugby union, cricket and tennis - all have had major players come out and provide inspiration as figureheads, in the forms of Gareth Thomas, Steven Davies and Martina Navratilova respectively, football has had no such icon.

Recently, more and more influential sports figures have been open about their private lives, Tom Daley being the most notable, who said that he was "in a relationship" with a man who made him feel "safe". Safe is not a word often attributed to gay people in sport - it is encouraging that Daley feels so comfortable in his own skin.

Clearly there are gay footballers. One in ten men are gay, and there are over 4,000 professional footballers registered in this country. Do the maths.

Would a gay footballer be accepted, in the supposedly 'macho' world of the sport? (Although if you've ever smelt a footballer after they've been in the changing rooms, the amount of perfume they wear, they are anything but macho). Maybe they would.

After his decision, there were a whole host of tweets from former teammates in response. Former international teammate Lukas Podolski gave him 'respect' on his 'right decision'. Match of the Day host Gary Lineker also offered his 'congratulations'. So maybe there is hope after all.

Of course there will be those who live in the dark ages, but as a football fan, if a player for my team came out, I would be fully supportive. As long as they played well, I wouldn't care about their sexuality, and I think that is how most fans feel too.

Ask a Villa fan how they feel about Thomas Hitzlsperger. They won't call him gay; they'll call him 'Der Hammer', in honour of his lethal left-foot shot that made him a fan favourite. Because that is all us simple footballing folk care about, honestly.