Sunday , July 3 2022

Jake Daniels must find a balance between being a footballer and a role model | Soccer

I’ve often been asked how long it would take for a current English male professional footballer to come out as gay. Would it be a famous international player? Or someone at the very start of his professional career, such as Jake Daniels, who plays for Blackpool in the Championship? That Jake is the first is a huge step forward, but the fact it’s such big news is also something the media needs to reflect on. We all play a big part in that.

My immediate reaction was that he needs support. Because coming out is such a personal decision, a life-changing experience, and you have to understand when is the right moment. For Jake, it’s at the age of 17; for me it was at 31, shortly after retiring.

The idea of coming out while still playing went through my mind. I tried to prepare for it. I was curious to find out how my teammates would react, how the fans and media would react. But it just wasn’t the right time. People tried to protect me and it worked. That’s why for Jake to be so clear – at his age – is brilliant. To know so early in his life that he doesn’t want to live with a lie. It’s phenomenal to see the support he has had.

He’s at a stage of his career where he’s just signed a professional contract, he’s played a few minutes in the Championship and will probably play more next season. Now, everything is different. I’m curious to see how his career will develop. Because on the one hand he wants to be the best footballer possible, but on the other he wants to be a role model for the LGBTQ community and finding that balance is not going to be easy.

Hopefully, being open with everyone will make him an even better player. No secrets, nobody talking behind his back. But I hope he’s got good people around him, people who are also able to say no when the requests come in from all around the world.

Thomas Hitzlsperger celebrates scoring during his playing days with Aston Villa in 2002.
Thomas Hitzlsperger celebrates scoring during his playing days with Aston Villa in 2002. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

When I came out in 2014, I was happy to get so much praise and positive feedback. It was confirmation of what I thought would happen. With Jake, who will be playing football in a stadium in a few months’ time, it’s a different matter. People will be waiting for the reaction, which I think will be positive. But maybe there’s a moment when a fan or one of the guys he plays against will abuse or insult him. It happened with other gay players in Robbie Rogers and Josh Cavallo, it happened in 2020 when Landon Donovan led his team off the field after a player was subjected to homophobic abuse. There may be incidents in the future and we have to be prepared for that.

Let’s not fool ourselves. There will always be discrimination, in football and in society. That’s when you have to be strong. That’s when you need to have confidence. Know how to separate the criticism that comes because you’ve done something wrong and the criticism that comes because you’re part of a minority. Some people are not at the point of acceptance. Not everyone will be clapping and cheering. That’s why you need to explain to people, talk to people, help them to understand.

I still feel that curiosity when it comes to gay issues in professional football. I’m very happy to talk about them, to help the cause of fighting homophobia. But, at the same time, I have a career and want to be known for being good at my job. I’ve had a playing career, I’ve worked in the media, I’ve worked for a Bundesliga club. Finding that balance has worked quite well. And when people recognise me in the street, hardly anyone knows me as the “guy who came out”. Most of the time they say: “Oh, you’re that footballer.”

Jake said he had been emboldened by the story of Cavallo, the Adelaide United player who came out last year. I went through a similar experience.

It’s always other people who inspire you, who give you the confidence until it’s your turn to do it. That’s why, to this day, we still need people to come out publicly. You don’t just do it for yourself. You go public because you want to help so many other people out there who you don’t know, those who are still afraid to say what they feel. That’s why I will never regret coming out. And Jake won’t either.

Thomas Hitzlsperger won 52 caps for Germany and played for clubs including Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton over a 12-year career. Most recently he was the sporting director of Stuttgart.

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