Michael Sternkopf became the latest in an ever growing list of soccer personalities to go public with a very private matter this Tuesday. Not long ago, the 41-year-old general manager of Kickers Offenbach would probably have done anything in his powers to keep his secret out of the limelight. But German soccer's attitude has changed to the point that the former Bayern Munich midfielder felt able to talk to the biggest tabloid Bild openly about his condition: he has checked into a clinic for treatment of burnout syndrome. "I'm not able to do my job at the moment," he told the newspaper.
Only last month, Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick resigned, citing chronic fatigue. Before that, Hannover keeper Markus Miller admitted to receiving psychological treatment. These cases -- and the public's widely positive reactions to them -- show that mental health problems seem to have lost their stigma. Almost exactly two years after the tragic suicide of Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke, who suffered from depression, it is no longer a subject that needs covering up but is increasingly understood as an illness that can be overcome.
This mature approach contrasts sharply with the complicated, incongruent way another taboo issue continues to be dealt with. Unlike mental health, homosexuality has no bearing whatsoever on a player's (or manager's) ability to perform for his team. But German soccer has yet to witness a high-profile coming out, despite the country's thoroughly relaxed attitude to the subject on a whole. There are openly gay men and women in politics -- including the foreign minister Guido Westerwelle -- on mainstream television and in all walks of life.
It's not as if homosexuality is not being talked about in relation to German football, either. On the contrary, there's probably never been a more extensive debate. But it's telling that every public utterance on the subject, even if most benign, is swiftly followed up by an emphatic declaration that player himself was of course heterosexual.
Take Arne Friedrich. This week, the former Wolfsburg defender was asked about persistent rumors about his sexuality in a German TV talk show. "It's a bit odd when you [Google yourself] and the word 'gay' comes up immediately," said the 32-year-old. "You live with these things. But I've been going out with my girlfriend Linn for 10 years now, I'm very happy. There's no debate, as far as I'm concerned." Friedrich, who played at the World Cup in South Africa for Germany, added that he had "never met a player who I even suspected of being gay. But if that was the case, it would have been OK as well. I don't have anything against gays. It's live and let live." Asked about players coming out, Friedrich was doubtful. "I think it would be quite difficult, especially in football," he said. "There would probably be some headwind." Just to drive home the point, Friedrich's girlfriend Linn Rödenbeck wrote an open letter the next day. "Apologies to all those who might be disappointed now," she wrote. "No, Arne is not gay. And I'm he sure he would be the last person not to admit to it (if he was gay)."
Friedrich's views echoed those of Germany captain Philipp Lahm. The 27-year-old is aware of similar rumors and addressed these in his recent autobiography. "I don't care about these speculations, I don't think homosexuality is something reprehensible at all," he wrote. Lahm, a married man, also recalled being stalked by a gay fan and advised homosexual professionals to stay in the closet. "I'd be afraid that they would share the fate of the English player Justin Fashanu, who felt under so much pressure after coming out that he killed himself." It goes without saying that the Bayern fullback, too, added that he felt the need to "clarify" that he wasn't homosexual.
Mario Gomez, a Bayern team mate, took a different view. "I would welcome (gay footballers) coming out," the striker told Bunte magazine in November 2010. "I think they could play freely (after that). I don't think being gay is taboo anymore." It's worth noting that the article made extensive references to his girlfriend Silvia, presumably in an effort to ward off any misunderstandings.
The most ill-conceived statement on that matter was made by Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff, however. The 43-year-old angrily reacted to a reference in a fictional TV thriller ("half of the national team, including the managerial staff are gay," one actor proclaimed) with some strong language. "I see this as an attack on my family -- the family of the national team," Bierhoff said. The inference was very clear: homosexuality threatens the natural order of things and must be kept out of the changing room. No wonder that Bild felt free to ask "Is there a gay conspiracy in the national team?" in a story that referred to scurrilous rumors after the World Cup.
Put together, these conflicting messages have undoubtedly undermined some of the work done at grass roots level. The German FA, for example, has been actively fighting homophobia for a number of years, and most Bundesliga clubs by now have gay fan clubs who support their teams in the stadiums. With increasing awareness, some progress has certainly been made, even if the word "gay" is still widely used as pejorative term in many grounds, akin to the casual racism that was prevalent in the 1980s and early 1990s.
What is now needed for the situation to improve to the point that an active player would feel confident to come out is not more disingenuous, counterproductive lip-service from professional players but more education, coupled with stricter punishment for homophobic behavior, on or off the pitch. In other words: Lahm et al should not speculate about the "headwind" an outed player would face but instead stress that any adverse reaction would be as unacceptable as any other form of discrimination. Gomez's optimism might come across as slightly patronizing. But at least it doesn't inadvertently legitimize anti-gay sentiment by treating it as something that is to be expected in soccer.
A scandalous decision from 2007, when the FA's disciplinary committee banned Dortmund keeper Roman Weidenfeller for only three games after he admitted to calling Gerald Asamoah a "gay pig" -- the racist insult of "black pig" would have been punished with a six-game ban -- shows that there's still a long way to go before the matter is taken as seriously at it should be. The newly-enlightened attitude toward mental health cases like Rangnick's or Sternkopf's suggests that once the stigma itself is targeted, the fear of it felt by those affected soon disappears, too. One must hope that German soccer doesn't have to witness another Enke-like tragedy before its views on sexuality catch up with those of the rest of society.