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Group of gay players in men’s pro soccer will come out, says former footballer Marcus Urban

Urban, once a youth international, is leading an LGBTQ initiative called “Sports Free” which he claims is being supported by Borussia Dortmund and other elite football clubs.

Marcus Urban is raising awareness of “Sports Free” which he hopes will inspire a collective coming-out of gay footballers
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A former pro soccer player, who was one of the first to have played professionally in the men’s game before coming out publicly as gay, says several current players are poised to do the same in 2024.

Marcus Urban, who represented East Germany at the youth level in the late 1980s and is now a diversity consultant, believes confidence is growing within a group of male footballers, all of whom are LGBTQ.

In an interview with German news website t-online on Friday, Urban says he has been working “for many years” on a strategy that will support the players as they seek to share their truth.

“We approach the matter with the necessary patience, composure and fun,” he explains. “One thing is clear: it will happen.”

As a young man, Urban was on the books of FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt — then a second-tier pro club in Germany — but chose to quit football in 1991 as he struggled with being in the closet.

He came out to friends and family three years later but it wasn’t until 2007 that he went public about being gay via a national newspaper.

His autobiography “The Hide and Seek Player” was published the following year; only Justin Fashanu and former Norway Under-19 defender Thomas Berling had come out in men’s football before him.

Marcus Urban
Urban, pictured here on German TV in 2014 after Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay, has worked in diversity and inclusion for many years.
Photo by Müller-Stauffenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Since then, Urban has operated as an inclusion advisor for businesses and organizations in and out of sports. Now 52, he has launched a campaign project called “Sports Free” and claims to have already attracted funding from leading Bundesliga clubs Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart.

In the Q&A with t-online, Urban expresses concern that agents, family members and others within the entourage of pro players that he knows are gay are urging them to remain closeted.

“They don’t tell them that they should stand up for themselves, but rather the exact opposite, so that they can continue to profit diligently from them,” he says. “I feel very sorry for the players because they have reached an emotional dead end.”

Since Urban came out as gay 16 years ago, less than 25 current or former men’s pro players worldwide have followed suit. The impending retirement of Scottish striker Zander Murray will reduce the number of active male pro footballers who are gay, anywhere in the world, to just five.

“Considering the 150 years this sport has existed, this is ridiculous. Especially when you think of the thousands upon thousands of professionals,” adds Urban.

He says there have been previous attempts for a group of gay players to come out together but that these have failed due to disagreements, fear and considerations such as potential future transfers.

However, Urban feels this time is different and has even set a tentative target date of May 17, 2024 — the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia — for an announcement.

Earlier in December, in a different Q&A article published by web.de, he described the May 17 awareness day as a coming-out “opportunity” and was asked how the group of players felt about that.

“They like it. It is a process of rapprochement to come to terms with oneself, an encounter with one’s own fears and anxieties, from which one can and will grow, in order to then take this final step towards freedom. And I’ll help you with that.”

Through his company Diversero, which is running “Sports Free”, Urban has also released the trailer for a documentary film called “Hide and Seek”.

A group coming-out story in soccer — could it happen?

The concept of LGBTQ athletes coming out collectively has often been mooted in sports, but there are barely any examples of it in practice, and none that Outsports is aware of in men’s team sports specifically.

The closest we can recall occurred in France in 2021 — again in conjunction with a TV documentary — when five Olympians and a rugby union player spoke publicly for the first time about being LGBTQ.

In men’s soccer in England, speculation is heightened from time to time by bold claims made in the media about mystery gay footballers. In 2017, former Leeds United managing director David Haigh said in an interview that he knew of at least 20 playing in the Premier League and the second-tier Championship.

Three years later, a charity called the Justin Fashanu Foundation told The Sun newspaper that it was working with five players, two of whom were later quoted anonymously in the tabloid.

None of these assertions are known to have developed further in any way, and appeared to attract more skepticism than support. That recent history is likely to leave many observers unconvinced when it comes to Urban’s claims, despite his confidence.

It reflects the claims made a decade ago that four NFL players were all going to come out publicly together. That was never true and thus never materialized.

There is also a crowdfunder element to “Sports Free” — at the time of writing, the GoFundMe has raised 1,800 euros of a stated target of 500,000 euros in the space of two months, although Urban has referred in interviews to larger donations from clubs, with Borussia Dortmund said to have pledged 25,000 euros while VfB Stuttgart and FC St Pauli are also contributing.

On Friday, St Pauli published a podcast interview with Urban on its website, also mentioning the target date of May 17, 2024, and said the club had pledged nearly 2,000 euros to the “Sports Free” initiative.

The Diversero website says donations will be used to fund storytelling, a safe online platform, film production, and “education and support”.

Clearly, the reasons behind such a scarcity of coming-out stories in men’s soccer are complex and nuanced. Urban addresses many of these in his interviews, such as noting how “toxic, perfectionist images of masculinity that dictate how one should be are still circulating” at a professional level in football. His own experiences as a closeted player 30 years ago and as a diversity consultant today should afford him a measure of respect too.

As we have seen, however, there is always a risk in discussing the potential coming-out of one or more people in the media in advance of it happening, and May 17 is still a considerable way off.

Those players who have come out independently in recent years and who are still active — Collin Martin, Andy Brennan, Josh Cavallo, Jake Daniels, Murray, and Jakub Jankto — worked closely with their clubs on their respective announcements, which were not leaked or “teased out” in advance.

SSC Napoli v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A TIM
Jakub Jankto, now with Cagliari, is the most recent male professional player to come out publicly as gay.
Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Co-ordinating a group coming-out would no doubt require many more moving parts and is a very different proposition to the French TV documentary, in which most of the LGBTQ athletes competed as individuals or were not as high-profile as a male professional footballer might be.

In the U.K., an LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective was established in June 2022 with the support of organizations including the Football Association and the Football v Homophobia campaign. The Collective is a public-facing group of people who work in roles across the game — including Murray, semi-pro players, coaches, match officials and others — who have previously come out publicly and who now want to use their visibility to help inspire more LGBTQ representation.

Urban believes there is an inevitability about the specific situation that “Sports Free” is working towards in Germany. “In the end, it is a question of organization,” he says.

If his strategy proves to be a sound one, it would be a groundbreaking moment in the world’s most-watched sport. But for now, we only have one man’s word for it. All anyone can offer is a watching brief.