Premier League - Is football ready for openly gay players?

West Ham winger Matt Jarvis has sparked debate by become the third footballer to feature on the front of the UK's leading gay magazine, saying he believes the sport is more than ready to welcome any stars wanting to come out.

The married 26-year-old features on the front of February's Attitude, following on from David Beckham and Freddie Ljungberg, who both appeared in the previous decade. Jarvis believes there would be no issue should any footballers decide to come out.

"It's everyday life," he said. "It's not something that's going to be a shock. I'm sure there are many footballers who are gay, but when they decide to actually come out and say it, it is a different story."

He added: "It's one that I'm sure they've thought about many times. But it's a hard thing for them to do."

Jarvis feels the mechanisms are in place to help out any player who chose to take what would be a pioneering step.

"There'd be support everywhere within the football community, whether it be players, fans or within the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association]," he said. "There would definitely be groups of people who would be supportive and help them through it."

No professional footballer has come out publicly in Britain since Justin Fashanu in 1990.

Fashanu tragically killed himself in 1998 after American police questioned him over an alleged sexual assault; the investigation was dropped, but Fashanu is believed to have killed himself in the belief that there was a warrant out for his arrest.

Since then, the only footballer in Europe to have come out publicly is Swedish lower league player Anton Hysen, and gay rights activists believe there is still a major problem with homophobia in the game.

"One in four football fans think it is an anti-gay sport, while seven in 10 fans had heard homophobic abuse on the terraces. There is still a culture in the game that means being gay is not tolerated in the same way as it is in other professions and society at large," Alice Ashworth of Stonewall told The Guardian.

Those attitudes seem to be rife across the continent: Italian football has been hit by several homophobia controversies recently, with national team striker Antonio Cassano causing a storm at Euro 2012 for saying that he hoped there were no gay players in the Italy squad.

And in Russia recently, top flight stars Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamaev have sparked a huge national debate after their holiday photos appeared online. The pictures showed them in the bath and hugging, prompting widespread questions about their sexuality.

This row has blown up against the background of one of Zenit St Petersburg's major fan groups demanding that the club shun gay and black players - a demand the club has dismissed out of hand, incidentally.

In Britain, however, Jarvis's words suggest that the time is right for more footballers to come out, and Attitude's editor Matthew Todd believes that it is high time they did.

"It's ridiculous that there are no openly gay players in professional football," he told the Guardian. "There's rightly been a focus on ridding the beautiful game of racism, but there doesn't seem to be much effort to tackle homophobia.

"We know there are gay players – and gay fans who support the game religiously – so I hope this starts a discussion and is a small step in the right direction."