The Bundesliga has never had an out gay active male footballer - and Felix Kroos, who played for several Bundesliga teams, feels he knows why | Martin Rose/Getty Images

On the day Marcus Urban hoped would be a coming out day for gay and bi male professional footballers, nobody decided to step across that line.

However, the former player whose “Sports Free” project had been months in the planning was still talking a good game on IDAHOBIT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

In an interview with RTL Sport, he again claimed to have knowledge of gay players communicating with each other, from those who feature in the Champions League down to the third tier of German soccer, and from other countries too.

“There are really more than I thought, but even I only see a few,” he said. “Not everyone is connected in groups. Many do individual things.”

It’s the same story Urban has been telling for months. Outsports first reported on Urban’s initiative late last year, when he was already doing the media rounds in a bid to drum up interest and in turn, some funding.

Even then, the history of men’s team sports told us that the scenario was highly unlikely. “It would be a groundbreaking moment,” I wrote, “but for now, we only have one man’s word for it.”

Urban’s project was never just about May 17 (its website even mentions that “the 17th of every month” could be “Sports Free Day,” which sounds like a get-out clause).

But he did frequently nail his Pride colors to that mast, and the media was happy to raise the rainbow flag for him. The story of secret WhatsApp groups with gay footballers has been clickbait gold for a host of outlets and social media accounts — it’s tantalizing, it gets fans guessing (and commenting) and it keeps them coming back for more.

Within German football, though, Urban has been given the benefit of the doubt on all this by many people. Several Bundesliga clubs have shown a level of support, with some pledging financially.

His own story is an important one — coming out in 2007 as a former player when only Justin Fashanu and Thomas Berling had gone before him in men’s soccer, anywhere in the world. He has given back to the game as a diversity consultant and as a contributor to documentaries.

Yet the cynics were beginning to circle as the targeted date approached. May 17 has now turned into a day of criticism, not celebration.

‘A media fuss’

Julia Monro is a leading LGBTQ activist, writer and consultant in Germany. She took aim at Urban in Tagesspiegel: “I find this solo effort without the community very unfortunate.

“We have enough lone fighters… he harms queer professionals by first building up a long arc of tension and then nothing comes of it in the end.”

She also referred to the fundraising element of “Sports Free,” saying: “If money is collected in the background for alleged ‘storytelling’ and then a media fuss is created, then to me it seems more like a clever PR strategy.”

Zander Murray is a gay footballer who connected with Urban several months ago, having read about the project on Outsports. He offered his assistance to the closeted gay players, as someone who had come out as gay and played in the pro leagues in Scotland.

Writing on X on Friday, he highlighted how the media had “whipped up a frenzy” around the story, and added: “I’ve been in contact with the org who is running this campaign. Unfortunately I was not allowed to engage with the players.”

Murray was also posting to share a new episode of the Football v Homophobia Podcast, in which he discusses his concern that the hype around May 17 could end up pushing pro players who are gay or bi “further back in the closet.”

As for the reaction from LGBTQ supporters, a broad coalition of fan groups published an open letter Friday addressed to gay footballers who are considering coming out.

“You alone decide when and where you come out. But when the time comes, we’ll be there. We will recognize your courage and support you,” read the letter. It referred to the tabloid press as “annoying”; there was no mention of “Sports Free.”

Kroos control

This weekend, the Bundesliga and Bundesliga.2 league seasons draw to a conclusion. There are still issues to be settled, which again made May 17 an unappealing date for a player to come out, in case it opened them up to accusations of being a “distraction.”

Perhaps the final word for now should go to a player who understands the modern-day locker-room culture in Germany. 

Felix Kroos made over 300 league appearances there before retiring in 2021. The younger brother of World Cup winner Toni, he appeared on a podcast this week and was asked why gay and bi players are still so rare.

Kroos feels that in his 13 years as a pro, he would have feasibly played with 10 to 12 gay guys. But he admitted he was guessing.

“I don’t know about a single one. Nobody has talked to me about it… I believe there is a very small percentage where someone has confided in a colleague.”

In his view, it’s the competition between teammates within a squad and the fact you could be transferred at any time that prevents players from coming out.

“If a club has to choose between you and another player because we are equally good and cost the same, then of course you look for arguments: Do I take this one or do I take that one?”

That is, understandably, where fear and trepidation around coming out would really take hold. You can only control the controllables — and the decisions and whims of coaches and sporting directors sit outside of that.

“Sports Free” certainly isn’t finished, but it feels like a rethink is needed.

And if these closeted gay players do exist and are all together in a WhatsApp group, you can be sure they’ll have been sharing countless articles and social posts written about them over the last few months.

Constantly shining a searchlight in their direction will generate clicks and might even bring in some donations. But it will never lure them out of the shadows.