Soccer is a global sport with a global following -- and it's worth a lot of money. Clubs pay big money to train and develop young, talented players, they offer bigger money to attract the biggest names, companies pay millions in sponsorship and advertisements, merchandise for clubs and players is sold around the world. The pressure to perform -- and conform -- is huge.
The cost of that pressure is simply too high. I know because I paid it. "I am a soccer player, so I can't be gay"; I used to repeat this sentence to myself. In 1991, even though I was one of an elite few of the most promising young, German players, I quit my career.
Every day, I was hiding. Pretending not to be different next to trainers, teachers, managers, fans, relatives. I struggled trying to control every gesture, and I had no life outside of soccer. Still, I wanted to play against the best so the pain endured.
In the end, I had to decide. The choice was soccer or my life. I chose life.
Now, a full 20 years later, has the situation changed? Only a few days ago, Italian team's forward Antonio Cassano said he hopes there are no gay players in his ranks at the European Football Championships (Euro 2012). He's since apologized, but the attitudes linger. This Championship is televised across the world and globally reported. Entire towns and families gather to watch their home team take on the continent. Families with kids who are just like I was. Whether he realizes it or not, Cassano is telling them they must conform. He's teaching them soccer's gay gag rule.
But there are places where things are worse even than they can be on the field. In Ukraine -- where Euro 2012 is hosted this year -- Parliament is about to vote on their own version of the gay gag rule passed in Russia earlier this year. A "propaganda" law to silence any reading, writing, speech or debate on anything "gay."
When I came out, I felt alive again. I was free to speak up and speak out. A right that is about to be denied to all Ukrainians.
It's not only on the field that we need to make a difference. Instead of just reminiscing, I've decided to do something about it. I am supporting people just like me, who are living in Ukraine right now, by speaking up against this law -- and you can stand with me right now, while the attention of the entire worlds on Ukraine and Euro 2012: www.allout.org/ukraine.
Soccer players, fans, and managers alike can all help get rid of the gay gag rule, on and off the field. By speaking out against Cassano's comments the Italian manager, Cesare Prandelli, is making a real difference. Now it's Ukraine's turn -- while the global spotlight is shining on them during Euro 2012. Thousands of people around the world have sent me their own stories after they heard mine. We should all be a part of making sure that soccer, the world's game, is special for every kid including the ones who are just like me.
I hope that one day, my story is part of the distant past. A past that we fought against and one we do not want to see repeated.
The book Hidden Player is the story of Marcus Urban - Germany's first openly gay soccer player (available only in German).