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ROME (AP) — England coach Gareth Southgate hopes that gay soccer players “come out soon” because “it would have an enormous impact on society,” he said in an interview with an Italian newspaper published on Saturday.

“The teams and players wouldn’t have any problem with it,” Southgate told La Repubblica ahead of this month’s World Cup in Qatar. “They would accept and embrace their teammates after a coming out. But footballers are afraid of the reactions outside and from the fans.

“I experienced it with Thomas Hitzlsperger at Aston Villa: I didn’t think he was gay and when he announced it, it was something completely normal,” he said of the former Germany international, who came out as gay after he retired from playing.

Southgate and Hitzlsperger were teammates at Villa in the early 2000s.

“European teams have never been as tolerant, multicultural and multi-religious as they are today,” Southgate said in comments that were published in Italian. “Of course there will always be homophobes on the outside. But I hope gay players come out soon because it would have an enormous impact on society.”

Gay rights have become an issue for the World Cup since same-sex relations are criminalized in the conservative Gulf nation.

England will wear the “OneLove” anti-discrimination captain’s armband at the World Cup.

At least 10 European nations committed to promote inclusion and campaign against discrimination this season and eight of them have qualified for Qatar.

Southgate was asked if the armband initiative will be enough to raise awareness about human rights issues in Qatar, with the treatment of migrant workers who built venues for the World Cup a decade-long controversy.

“We need to be realists about the goals we want to achieve,” the coach said. “I’ve been to Qatar three times and all the workers have told me clearly that they want the World Cup because it’s a vehicle for change.

“We need to respect a country with a different culture, religion and traditions. But at the same time we have the responsibility and the possibility to shed light on aspects that can be improved. That could make a big difference.”

England plays Iran in its opening match in Qatar on Nov. 21 before also facing the United States and Wales in Group B.


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