ON the eve of the World Cup, Australia’s peak soccer body has told the Star Observer a top flight footballer who came out would be treated with “respect and support.”

However, the president of one of Australia’s most respected LGBTI soccer teams has said the sport is not yet at the stage where a gay player would receive the same adulation as Michael Sam — the first and only out footballer in a major NFL team.

The World Cup kicks off in Rio de Janeiro tomorrow at 6am Australian time, with the opening clash between hosts Brazil and Croatia.

Thirty-two teams, including Australia, are competing in what is one of the world’s largest sporting events.

However, there are no openly-gay footballers in the competition.

And while several lesbian footballers have represented Australia, including Sarah Walsh at the Women’s World Cup, no Australian male international player has come out.

Speaking to the Star Observer, Football Federation Australia (FFA) spokesperson Adam Mark said: “Due to football’s popularity and influence, FFA has a unique opportunity to show leadership [when it comes to LGBTI inclusion] in the community in regards to this important issue.”

Football had a “very diverse player and fan base,” said Mark, and a large amount of participation was at a grassroots level.

“In that broad and diverse context, FFA’s commitment to implement anti-homophobia policies will have a huge impact for good within our community.”

Asked whether now was the right time for a gay professional footballer to come out, Mark said: “All football players under the banner of FFA receive the same level of respect and support irrespective of their ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual preference.”

In April, the FFA signed up to the gay rugby Bingham Cup-led Anti Homophobia and Inclusion Framework.

President of gay soccer team the Melbourne Rovers (main image above), Heath Wilson, said he thought a corner had been turned when it came to the acceptance of LGBTI players, citing Football Federation Victoria’s support of the Fair Go! inclusion initiative and the support the club gets from A League squad Melbourne Heart.

“Up until now I don’t believe the support structure has been there for players to come out during their career,” Wilson said.

“I think that is changing with players and presidents of clubs supporting any player that does come out.”

Wilson added that the same level of support as was given to Michael Sam in the USA,“will eventually happen [here] and when it does it will be a great day for young same sex sportsmen and women to have a role model to look up to.”

President of fellow LGBTI team, the Sydney Rangers, Joseph Roppolo, said the lack of any out gay footballers meant Australian soccer was: “still waiting for our Ian Roberts.

“We need more education and support from the FFA, and the various state football bodies, to keep the issue relevant, positive and to make a real difference in the lives of Australian gay sports men and women.”

Roppolo said fear of sponsorship deals kept many gay sports people in the closet.

The few top-flight footballers who have come out all, such as English Premier League and Germany player Thomas Hitzlsperger, have waited until their international careers were over.

thomas

Thomas Hitzlsperger

Robbie Rogers, who has played internationally for the USA and is currently at David Beckham’s former club LA Galaxy, revealed his homosexuality in a blog post in February.

“Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret,” he wrote.

“My secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”

Rogers recently appeared in a video for the Proud to Play campaign to promote LGBTI participation in sport in the run up to the World Cup.

Robbie Rogers

Robbie Rogers

England’s Justin Fashanu is widely regarded as the first professional player to come out back in 1990.

The footballer committed suicide in 1998, but his legacy remains in the Fashanu Cup, an annual competition played between the Rovers and Rangers.

While Australia’s female gay footballers compete in a competition named after Julie Murray, an openly gay soccer player who represented Australia on 69 occasions.

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