Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former German international who spent much of his career in England, has become the most high-profile footballer to reveal he is gay – making his announcement in protest at “anti-gay propaganda” laws in Russia before the nation’s Winter Olympics.
There remain no openly gay players in football’s upper echelons, however – the 31-year-old retired from the game last year due to injury.
Hitzlsperger, who played for Aston Villa, West Ham United and Everton as well as 52 times for Germany, revealed his sexuality in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, to be published on Thursday.
Hitzlsperger said: “I’m making my homosexuality public because I would like to advance the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes.”
He also stated the timing of his decision was linked to the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, saying: “The Olympic Games in Sochi are approaching and I think it needs critical voices who will speak out against the campaigns run by several governments against homosexuals.”
Being openly gay remains a rare public stance in football. The former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers came out last year, after he too had retired. He has since returned to the sport with LA Galaxy.
Hitzlsperger voiced his concern over attitudes that still exist within dressing rooms in top-level football. He spoke of how it angered him that football is seen as a sport where “fighting, passion and the will to win are intrinsically linked”, compared to an idea that “gays are sissies”.
But he added: “Homosexuality is not a serious issue in England, Germany or Italy, not in the dressing room in any case. There are 20 young men sitting around a table drinking. You let most of it go, as long as the jokes are halfway funny and the rubbish about homosexuals is not hugely offensive.”
There is also a belief that wider attitudes within the game have moved on since the days of Justin Fashanu. He committed suicide in 1998, eight years after he came out.
The Justin Campaign, a group set up to combat homophobia in football, states that “there is no doubt that the pressures and prejudices Justin experienced as a gay black man in the harsh world of professional football contributed significantly to his downfall”.
Hitzlsperger’s announcement came on the same day the former Chelsea player Alex was reported to have made anti-gay comments in a French documentary.
Former international team-mate Lukas Podolski’s response was more positive. “Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time,” tweeted Podolski, who plays for Arsenal.