Don’t expect a group of gay footballers to come out - but this club has just welcomed a gay staff member. | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

The soccer term “nutmeg” is used for a skill move where a player in possession lures in their opponent, then leaves them bamboozled as the ball is pushed between their legs.

A similar feeling of frustration hits LGBTQ fans and allies whenever they are teased by the prospect of gay footballers coming out in the men’s game. 99% of the time, it’s a trap.

In the U.K., this teasing is a years-old tabloid media tactic that profits from natural human curiosity and then screws optimism.

It’s evolving in the social media age as accounts chase clicks to drive revenue, but the set-up is fundamentally the same.

So don’t let yourself get tricked by a nutmeg coming your way this week.

Let’s recap. There’s a sensational story doing the rounds that says a group of gay and bi players, primarily in the German pro leagues, are planning to come out publicly together on May 17, which is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Last month, a British sports website caught wind of the story and created clickbait wildfire out of it. Twitter / X accounts that pay for blue ticks to get exposure, knowing they can make money from engagement, jumped on this story as well. At least one hit the sweet spot, pulling in over 8 million views.

The truth is that May 17 has never been more than a suggested opportunity, put forward months ago by Marcus Urban — a former footballer who came out as gay in 2007 and who devised a project designed to help LGBTQ people in sports who don’t want to hide anymore.

“Sports Free” is being run through Urban’s non-profit organization, Diversero. In interviews to promote it, he has claimed that there are one or more WhatsApp groups in which pro players who are gay and bi, and others involved in football such as match officials, have found community.

Urban has good intentions, but as the target date approaches he has had to play down talk of a seismic moment in soccer.

Speaking to Hamburg-based magazine Stern, he said the players in question are “extremely careful” and had “internalized the belief that they would fall out of favor in the industry after a coming-out… [it is] a huge game of hide and seek.”

I asked Urban myself about the media hype surrounding May 17.

“It’s not about the setting of an announcement, and then disappointment or success,” he told me. “It [May 17] is an offer and everyone has to make this decision personally.”

‘Fantastic reactions’

Urban is instead keen to highlight the story of Dirk Elbraechter, who has worked in a senior media role at Bundesliga club TSG Hoffenheim since 2022.

Elbraechter, 51, has shared his story on the Diversero website, describing in a video how he struggled to tell colleagues that he is gay and in a long-term relationship.

Elbraechter read about “Sports Free” and reached out to Urban for assistance. He has since come out at Hoffenheim and wants to “break the culture of hiding.”

“I had the feeling that I was totally on my own with my sexuality. Homosexuality somehow didn’t exist there – not among my colleagues, and certainly not among the players,” he told me via email.

He mentioned having heard homophobic slurs being used to describe referees.

“I wasn’t sure whether coming out would have a negative impact on my career,” he added. “That was my inner battle. But I took it on.

“The research on “Sports Free” gave me courage, and I realized I could do something for myself, but also for others.

“I’ve had fantastic reactions. The management have been very open, and the club supports “Sports Free” both financially and in terms of content.

“My direct colleagues were almost angry and disappointed that I didn’t tell them beforehand.”

Urban is encouraged by this, telling me: “Dirk wants to be a role model for the players. This is the beginning.

“On our website and our social media, we are pushing the stories we have.”

Displayed alongside Elbraechter’s story is that of a Bundesliga club chairman, Alexander Wehrle, who succeeded Thomas Hitzlsperger in the role at VfB Stuttgart. Wehrle was previously CEO at FC Koln and has been out as gay for many years.

There are also profiles of past and present footballers who are gay — Hitzlsperger, Josh Cavallo, Zander Murray, Jakub Jankto, amateur player Oliver Egger, and Urban himself.

“We will fill this up day by day,” he added. “But it could be that they [the players] own their stories on their channels. It could be outside of our project.

“It really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that they can live free, self-determined and happy.”

I asked Urban if the ongoing media coverage was affecting the closeted players. He agreed it is “making pressure” but insisted he “thought about this before” and that it doesn’t deter him.

“The people and the players already know about this pressure,” he said. “We need this interest in the public, so I think it’s more helpful.”

One byproduct of the coverage is fans commenting on social media about which players they think are gay. In a few instances, homophobic slurs and memes are posted too.

“People are curious about hidden things, hidden players,” said Urban.

“If it wasn’t hidden, then it wouldn’t be a problem. People would talk normally about love, passion, new partners, old partners.

“But because it’s hidden, then it’s interesting to people. Whether they are thinking, talking, guessing, whatever — it happens.

“This is not the criteria of our project. We are going forward and it doesn’t matter what people say, think, guess — they can do this. It’s no problem.”

Spinning around

The “Sports Free” webpage also features the badges of nine German pro clubs that have shown support for the project, including Hoffenheim.

There is also a donation link. It’s said that money pledged will fund a film series; a secure online platform; education and support; and further storytelling.

Not everyone agrees that this is the best approach, however.

Christian Rudolph, who advises the German Football Association (DFB) on LGBTQ inclusion, told radio station Deutschlandfunk he would have preferred to see “a broader alliance” in which clubs first acknowledge their responsibility to drive change internally.

“I would like the football clubs not only to hang out the rainbow flag, but also to become active themselves and set up their own programs, and also offer training measures and networks for employees,” said Rudolph.

He says the DFB has not been consulted on “Sports Free” while in an article about the project in Der Spiegel, journalist Peter Ahrens wrote: “The skeptics do not want to comment publicly on this. They say they didn’t want to talk the campaign out of proportion. On the other hand, they do not want to hide their criticism.”

Ultimately, Urban cannot be held responsible for misleading headlines used by clickbait websites or for the spin being put on these stories by social media accounts.

But having anticipated the hype, he has ended up fuelling it with talk about secret WhatsApp groups and the potential big moment on May 17.

Let’s hope that doesn’t backfire on “Sports Free” because Elbraechter’s experience hints at what the project could help to achieve, even if it’s just for one player who wants to liberate themselves — a much more likely scenario than a group coming-out.

Meanwhile, there will always be “nutmeg” style attempts to attract interest and generate gossip from stories about gay footballers. So be on your guard.