Stephen Laybutt, the Australia international who came out publicly as gay after retiring from soccer, has died at the age of 46.

Police in New South Wales confirmed they found Laybutt’s body on a beach in the north of the state on Sunday, and that his death was not being treated as suspicious.

Laybutt had last been seen in the nearby town of Casuarina on Friday evening. He was reported missing, leading to an extensive search.

Football Australia, players union Professional Footballers Australia, and Laybutt’s former clubs including Dutch giants Feyenoord and Belgian outfit KAA Gent were among those to post tributes.

Laybutt had been out of the public eye until 2021 when the remarkable story of how he made a life-saving intervention was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

He was working in the rehabilitation unit at a private hospital when he generously donated one of his kidneys to a dialysis patient, Ian Pavey.

Via an article written by SMH journalist Andrew Webster, Laybutt also described the intense struggles he had endured relating to his sexuality during his playing career.

Football Australia CEO James Johnson said: “We remember Stephen not just for his accomplishments on the field but also for his character and the positive influence he had on those around him.

“He will forever be remembered as part of the Socceroos family and will be deeply missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Laybutt was born in Lithgow, near Sydney, and started his pro career at Wollongong Wolves before moving on to another National Soccer League club, Brisbane Strikers.

After a brief spell in Japan, he joined Parramatta Power and was part of the Olyroos squad that competed in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

He built a reputation as an aggressive centre-back and was transferred back and forth several times between Europe and Australia over the course of the next eight years.

Injuries limited his progress but his best years were in Belgian elite club football, where he played for Excelsior Mouscron and Gent.

Laybutt was also part of the Socceroos squads that won the 2000 and 2004 OFC Nations Cup tournaments. A ruptured Achilles tendon led to him retiring from the pro game in 2008.

In the 2021 interview, he explained that he had gone “into hiding” after hanging up his boots because even though rumors about his sexuality were circulating, he did not feel ready to discuss it publicly.

“There was no way that I was ever going to come out [while I was playing],” he told Webster.

“Everyone says your mum knows, your best friend knows… Nobody knew. It takes a fair bit of effort to hide like that. I had girlfriends; I thought I had to go down that path but you think, ‘How’s this going to work?’

“Then football goes and life moves on and you say to yourself, ‘Come on, get real’. Just lying to yourself all the time. That breaks you and you head down a path of self-destruction.”

In 2010, Laybutt met the man who would become his partner, and towards the end of the decade, he started working in the gym at St Vincent’s Private Hospital.

One of the patients he was helping to provide rehab to was Pavey, who had had a knee operation. After learning that the 67-year-old had been waiting on a kidney transplant for almost three years, Laybutt texted him in February 2021 to suggest he donate one of his.

Speaking of Pavey, Laybutt said: “I just liked his attitude. He was always positive. I thought, ‘I should help this guy’.”

In the SMH article, Laybutt described undergoing sessions with a psychologist to determine why he wanted to be a donor. The deep conversations were beneficial to him, he said.

The transplant operation in October of that year was successful, and although Laybutt had no intention of sharing the story publicly, he agreed to speak to Webster.

It was headline news in Australia and with the article published just two months after Adelaide United player Josh Cavallo had become the first active A-League men’s player to come out as gay, Laybutt’s status as one of the very few gay male soccer players known to have represented their country was reported too.

Laybutt playing for Australia against Kuwait in a warm-up match before the Sydney Olympics in September 2000.

In a moving tribute article published on Monday, Webster described the story of Laybutt and Pavey as “a triumph for compassion and helping your fellow man”.

Pavey, now 69 and still in good health, said that he had kept in touch with his generous donor and was in shock at the tragic news of his passing.

Webster, himself an out gay man, recalled a quote from Laybutt about his sexuality when they spoke in late 2021.

“You think you’re going to come out and life’s going to be good,” he told me. “I finished my career, then came out, and I spiralled out of control for a while.

“I was just lost, thinking everything would be sweet because I came out… My sexuality had a massive effect on my career. I wish I’d played in a World Cup — but it was still a half-decent career.”

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