Britain's foremost PR advisor, Max Clifford, told The Independent on Sunday last night that he has represented two high-profile gay Premier League footballers in the past five years and has advised them to stay in the closet because football "remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia".
In the wake of the Wales and Lions rugby international Gareth Thomas coming out yesterday, Clifford says he cannot foresee a prominent footballer doing the same in the near future. "If he did, it would effectively be his career over, in my view," Clifford said.
"Do I think that's right? Of course not," he added. "It's a very sad state of affairs. But it's a fact that homophobia in football is as strong now as it was 10 years ago. If you'd asked me in 2000 whether I thought we'd have a famous, openly gay footballer by 2010 I would have said yes.
"You look across society and see openly gay people in music, movies, television, politics, the clergy, and it's not a problem, nor in many sports. It's not that footballers are homophobic but the fans can be vicious."
The IoS can also reveal that a Football Association anti-homophobia campaign has been stalled partly because its organisers have failed to secure big-name Premier League players to speak out against homophobia in a film that would be screened at grounds around the country.
"Unfortunately there seems to be a reluctance by some players and some clubs to speak up for gay rights," says Peter Clayton, who chairs the FA's "Homophobia in Football" working group. Clayton, 58, represents the Middlesex FA in the corridors of power and is the only openly gay FA councillor ever. He told the IoS yesterday: "It would take a very courageous Premier League footballer to come out because fans are so vociferous in football in a way they aren't in any other sport. There are also barriers to a player coming out from some clubs, firstly because the players are commercial assets and the clubs don't want those assets damaged, and secondly because a player coming out would cause disruption.
"There are gay players in the top division in English football, and some of them are out to their clubs and team-mates and nobody gives a jot. But there is a reluctance by some players and clubs to make public appeals against homophobia, perhaps through fear they would be thought of as gay themselves.
"The FA takes this issue very seriously and it's very high on the agenda. There are lots of gay footballers in Britain at grass-roots level and it's no problem. We do need to stamp out homophobia at the professional level, though, and just like anti-racism work, it will take time and education."
Thomas, 35, who plays for Cardiff Blues and is Wales' most capped player, came out in an interview with the Daily Mail. "It's tough for me being the only international rugby player prepared to break the taboo," he said. "I can't be the only one but I'm not aware of any other gay player still in the game."
Tellingly, both Thomas and Nigel Owens, the Welsh international rugby referee who came out when he was 32 in 2003, and publicly four years later, contemplated suicide before sharing their stories.
Owens, speaking to the IoS before refereeing a Heineken Cup match yesterday, said: "Why don't more players come out? It's a worry for us as individuals, whether you're involved in rugby or any sport. It's never easy being gay or accepting you're gay. Coming out isn't easy. Telling your mother isn't easy."
There has only been one openly gay man in English professional football, Justin Fashanu, who was taunted, bullied, and killed himself in 1998.
Clifford added: "I've had two high-profile Premier League football clients in the past five years who've been gay or bisexual and my advice has been not to make that public. For a top player to come out, I would envisage they'd be a hard man, with an established reputation, and perhaps a year or two at most left in the game, so if coming out brought too much hardship, it wouldn't matter so much professionally."