THOMAS HITZLSPERGER, the latest in a very select band of professional footballers to admit to being homosexual, has been rightly and loudly acclaimed for his revelation this week.

There is no denying the courage of the former German international midfielder, also a star for Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton in the Premier League, for this week disclosing he was gay.

His admission was made in the wake of an earlier ‘outing’ by former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers, who left English football to return to his native America before “coming out”. He has since resumed his playing career with LA Galaxy.

Hitzlsperger’s disclosure of his sexuality was made in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit this week. He retired from the game last September at the age of 31 due to injuries.

While his candid stance has been rightly hailed as daring, it remains a stark fact that the only player to declare his homosexuality while still playing was the late Justin Fashanu.

He made the breakthrough back in 1990 when football was even more macho, ignorant and intolerable.

Ultimately Fashanu’s self-sacrifice did not end so well. He was vilified by many in and out of the sport, and was a particular target for vile abuse from the terraces. His life ended in tragedy when he committed suicide in America at the age of 37.

It is fair to say that his honesty and bravery pioneered a trail to a more tolerant atmosphere that pervades in general society today. But in football? I’m not so sure.

What I am certain about is that any footballer presently still playing in the English game who was to declare himself gay would be the most courageous footballer since the late Fashanu.

To actually commit to such action and then still run out on to the pitch would take the utmost bravery.

He would not only need the full backing of his club, but his team-mates, the players’ union, his own fans, the Football Association, let alone family and friends, to even contemplate such a bold and uncharted course.

Current observers believe that any such player would be accorded far more humane treatment than that meted out to Fashanu in the wake of revealing his sexual preference.

But football’s inherent macho identity, fuelled by its rampant tribalism, does not fill me with outright confidence that such a stance would be accepted without ridicule, without vilification.

The fans of the player’s own club might be more protective, might be more understanding, might be more inclined to say what should be the norm, that is: “What the hell, who cares? He’s a person like you and me. That’s all there is to it.” Even then, there could well be an element of hostility even within his own club.

Football is ingrained with an inbuilt bigotry, not just of a homophobic nature. Racism is still a problem, if not as widespread. For all the laudable campaigns initiated by the powers that be, problems still persist, not least the sheer venom of fans’ detestation of rival clubs.

I have said before that I am all in favour of football’s tribalism.

Having attended other sports where there’s a less than involving environment and having witnessed first hand professional basketball in America, where, because of the immense distances of the nation, there are no visiting fans and so an atmosphere of virtual anaesthesia, there’s nothing better than club rivalry.

It’s when that spreads into outright malevolence and sheer hatred that it crosses the line to toxic revulsion.

There must come a time when it will not matter a jot as to what you are in football. But unfortunately I fear that is still at least a generation away when tolerance and sense and just sheer humanity will come into play.

Spelling out the obvious

WHAT are we going to do about Kevin? That’s the question doing the rounds, albeit in hush-hush tones, about the alleged far from friendly relationship between current England cricket coach Andy Flower and maverick batsman Kevin Pietersen.

Rumours of an “it’s either him or me” ultimatum have been roundly rubbished in public as the downtrodden England party were roundly castigated for the 5-0 annihilation they suffered at the bats and balls of their Antipodean adversaries.

Listen, it’s not just KP who should be worried. He was far from the only player not to deliver. There’s a whole alphabet of initials that need to be fearful about their futures.