The ex-Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder says in an interview to be published on Thursday: “I admit my homosexuality because I want to promote its discussion among professional athletes.”
The German FA has pushed for closet gays to step out into the limelight to take the pressure off themselves while individual players have said it would be “impossible” to perform with all the barracking they would draw from the terraces. Hitzlsperger is the highest-profile footballer to declare he is gay, albeit at the end of his career.
“The awareness of being gay was a lengthy and difficult process,” said the 31-year-old who, between 2004 and 2010, played a total of 52 games for the German national team.
Hitzlsperger added that it dawned on him “only in the last few years that I want to live a better life with another man.” Homosexuality in football, he says, is still “simply ignored.” He added: “In England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not a serious topic, not in the changing rooms at least.”
He said he got irritated again and again about the contradictions which built up in the football world in dealing with homosexuality. He said professional sport is a tough competitive sport where “passion and the will to win are inextricably linked. This does not fit in with the stereotype that many people have of homosexuals, namely that ‘gays are wimps’.”
“I was never ashamed that I am as I am,” he said. Nevertheless, the asides of his colleagues were not always easy to endure. “Think about it: 20 young men sit at the table and drink. You don’t leave as long as the jokes are more or less funny and the chatter about homosexuals is not massively offensive,” he went on in the German intellectual weekly Die Zeit, for whom he writes a column.
Hitzlsperger’s announcement has been described as “an important sign of our time” by Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski. The Gunners forward tweeted: “Brave and right decision. Respect,
Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign of our time.”
There were also messages of support on Twitter from his former club Villa as well as from ex-England captain Gary Lineker and QPR midfielder Joey Barton.
Villa said: “Everyone who knows Thomas from his time here at Villa has great respect for him, not only as the fine player he was but also as a man. Along with our support as a club, we hope that everyone involved in the game extends to him their support as well.”
Lineker added on his Twitter account: “Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger on bravely being the first player to have played in the PL to ‘come out’.”
Barton tweeted: “Thomas Hitzlsperger has shown a lot of courage today. Sad times when people have to wait till they retire from their chosen profession before they feel other people will judge them solely on who the human being is. Shame on all of us as a society.”
Last September Hitzlsperger’s former national team-mate, goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, advised players thinking of outing themselves – don’t. He says they would open themselves up to “abuse” if they revealed their sexuality.
Kahn, who played 86 times for his country, told magazine Gala that homosexuality was still “taboo” at the top level of the game in Germany.
Kahn, 44, added: “It may sound sad, but I would advise a gay player to not come out. It’s no longer a big deal in society but naive to think it is the same in sport like football.”
Two years ago, national team captain Philipp Lahm also warned against players coming out. “First, I am not a homosexual. I am not married to my wife Claudia for appearances and I do not have a friend in Cologne with whom I really live,” Lahm wrote in the book entitled A Subtle Difference.
“This speculation doesn’t matter to me,” he said referring to rumours about a male companion in Cologne which have dogged him for years. “I have nothing against homosexuals and I find that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.
“But it never ceases to amaze me that these isolated types, who tell these stories, can have a lot of influence on public opinion. ‘Philipp Lahm homosexual’ – do you not have anything more important to talk about?” he said.
He referred to the case of ex-Norwich City, Nottingham Forest and Hearts striker Justin Fashanu who came out in the UK in the early 1990s and took his own life in America in 1998.
Lahm wrote: “I would not advise any gay professional footballer to come out because I would fear he could end up like Justin Fashanu who, after he outed himself, was driven into such a corner that he ended up committing suicide.”