IT is the last taboo still to be confronted in the macho, ultra-competitive world of the football changing room.

In a laddish environment where any sign of difference is seized upon, it hardly comes as a surprise that gay players might be reluctant to declare their sexuality to team-mates.

That surely lies at the heart of why we have yet to see an openly homosexual footballer playing in any of Europe’s top leagues.

While football has made attempts to deal with racism, religious hatred and sectarian violence – with mixed results, it must be said – homosexuality remains firmly in the closet.

The issue was forced back into the headlines this week when Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first footballer to have played in the Premier League to come out as gay.

The fact the former Aston Villa, Everton and West Ham midfielder also played 52 times for Germany made him the most high-profile case for two decades when he revealed his sexuality in an interview with a German newspaper.

“It's been a long and difficult process [of becoming aware of being gay]. Only in the last few years have I realised that I preferred living together with a man,” he told Die Zeit newspaper.

“Being gay is a topic that is ignored in football, and not a serious topic in the changing room.

“Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are intrinsically linked, that doesn’t fit the cliche ‘gays are soft’.”

Fear There is no argument that the German has first-hand experience with this kind of football culture, where “gay” is a byword for “soft”.

And sporting stars who have come out – such as rugby player Gareth Thomas, diver Tom Daley and boxer Nicola Adams – have shown visible relief that they no longer have to hide their sexuality because of the fear of what the general public and other people in sport might think about them.

So why no top footballers in that list?

Rory Magrath, an associate lecturer at Southampton Solent University, is researching homophobia and |masculinity in football towards a PhD.

He told the Daily Echo: “There is a kind of assumed homophobia within football, which has clearly put players off coming out while they are still playing.

“I felt that it was very sad that [Hitzlsperger] had to wait until he was retired to release the news of his sexuality.”

That “assumed homophobia” is almost certainly linked to the case of former footballer Justin Fashanu, who took his own life in 1998, after years of abuse because he was gay.

The first black footballer to command a £1m transfer fee came out in an interview with The Sun in 1990.

At that time, many former colleagues spoke out and said gay people had no place in sport, while his brother, John, also a footballer, publicly disowned him.

Meanwhile former Saints star Graham Le Saux was subjected to homophobic abuse before he came to the south coast club, even though he is straight.

He says he was targeted because he was interested in different things than his team-mates, such as art and culture, and read The Guardian newspaper instead of one of the red tops.

The former defender welcomed Thomas Hitzlsperger’s revelations, saying: “Things have changed dramatically since I was playing; football is much more open-minded and international.

“Thomas didn’t feel it was right and I respect that, and I don’t think we should expect players to be that open if they think it is going to put undue pressure on them.

“What would be a shame is if there was a young gay man who was a talented footballer who turned his back on the sport because he thinks football won’t accept him.”

That things may be changing is shown by the case of Robbie Rogers, who plays for David Beckham’s former team LA Galaxy in the US Major League Soccer.

Rory Magrath said of the American: “He was one example who came out and immediately felt like he had to retire.

“But what he found was actually a positive reaction and in the end he u-turned his decision to retire and signed for LA Galaxy.

“Once again it’s a case that there is an assumed homophobia and it’s unacceptable to come out when a player is still playing.

“There is perhaps a changing football culture at grass roots and upwards but there is still a fear among professional footballers of coming out.

“We can only speculate whether this will change or not, research suggests that the likelihood is that a gay player would be accepted.”

Publically there was widespread support in the football world for Thomas Hitzlsperger’s decision to come out.

Arsenal’s German forward Lukas Podolski tweeted: "Respect to Thomas Hitzlsperger! That was a courageous and correct decision and an important step."

Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker tweeted: “Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger on bravely being the first player to have played in the PL to 'come out'”

Yet the same day saw Alex, the former Chelsea centre-back now playing for Paris Saint Germain said: "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves".

Alex revealed religious reasons for his disapproval in a French television programme called Jesus Football Club. His comments weren’t specifically aimed at the Hitzlsperger case – the programme was recorded before it had happened – but it shows there is still some way to go before a homosexual player would be wholly accepted.

As with racism, homophobia in football won’t be a problem anymore only when players no longer have to use newspaper headlines and social media to “come out”.