Thomas Hitzlsperger: Announced he was gay in German press

We’re one step closer to the end of homophobia in football

We’re one step closer to the end of homophobia in football

There's only so long English football can withstand the changes which have taken place in this country.

The announcement from former Aston Villa player Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay brings forward the day when the dam breaks and the Premier League catches up with the rest of us.

Hitzlsperger is not your typical footballer. The Stuttgart midfielder visited Bank of England governor Mervyn King, a lifelong Villa fan, to discuss finance and economics on a regular basis. He's also an anti-racism campaigner and this sense of social justice evidently drove his decision to come out.

"It's been a long and difficult process," he told a German newspaper. "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."

It's tempting to feel that events are picking up momentum and change is finally coming to English football.

If so, it's been a long time coming. The suicide of Justin Fashanu, the first footballer to be openly gay, in 1998 presented an awful warning to any player considering coming out. Its shadow has hung over English football for too long.

You don't have to actually be gay to be attacked by fans and players. As Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith said, it was enough to be "single and read books". England defender Graeme Le Saux was married with children, but his antiques collection and university degree marked him out for homophobic taunting. Having The Sun brand players like Cristiano Ronaldo as a "nancy boy" doesn't help either.

Just three years ago, the FA tried to shoot a video discouraging anti-gay chants from the terraces but not one Premier League player was willing to feature in it. Sources within English football believe at least 12 Premier League players are gay and fear coming out. The true number is surely much higher.

Some believe it's the bullying they'd get in the changing rooms that discourages them.  The Guardian's Secret Footballer cast doubt on that, saying most dressing rooms would accept it, but that the chants from the crowd are feared more than the judgement of fellow players.

Hitzlsperger seems to corroborate this, with his comment that homophobia is not a problem "in the dressing room", although he then mentions "20 young men" making jokes. Does he mean the players away from the dressing room – or other people he socialises with?

Peter Clayton, chair of the FA's homophobia in football working group, pins the blame on the clubs themselves, which allegedly discourage footballers coming out due to fears of a reduction in their commercial value.

Is it really the continued homophobia of fans that keeps players in the closet? There are reasons to doubt it. Research by Staffordshire University found there was a decidedly blasé view about sexuality among fans – no different to the rest of the population. Of course, people take part in research projects alone, away from the judgement of their peers. On the terraces, the group mentality takes over.

But – slowly but surely – you can feel things changing.

Last year, former Leeds player Robbie Rogers came out as gay in a statement on his website. Last month, Olympic diver Tom Daley also confirmed he was interested in men as well as women.

It was in a very different sport, but Daley's statement was just as important for the way it was delivered as the content. He was relaxed and lying back nonchalantly on a sofa. He bore the face of a man doing something he resented but knew he had to do – like shopping for groceries or doing a tax return. Opponents of gay rights should have been most afraid of the indifference with which he treated it.

Now Hitzlsperger takes us one step closer to the holy grail: A current Premier League player who is openly-gay.

The Premier League is the last bastion of unreconstructed homophobia. But it is more than that: It is England's biggest cultural product. It is slavishly followed all around the world and with a particular ferocity in England. Footballers are ultimate role models for school children – and adults – in this country. The cultural change it would start would not be limited to the world of football.

Until the Premier League changes, the job won't be done. Hitzlsperger has provided another chink of light. It won't be long now until the last bastion falls.