Former Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger has become the first German footballer to confirm that he is gay.
The ex-Aston Villa midfielder, who retired from professional football four months ago, told Die Zeit he wanted “to move forward the discussion about homosexuality among professionals.”
Hitzlsperger, a columnist for the German weekly since 2008, said he had felt that, after hanging up his boots, the time had come to speak out about his sexuality.
He admitted it had been a “long and difficult process” when it dawned on him that he was gay.
“Only in the last couple of years have I come to realise that I would prefer to live with a man,” he said. “I have never felt ashamed of what I am.”
Hitzlsperger, who won 52 caps for Germany between 2004 and 2010, began his career in the Bayern Munich youth academy before joining Villa in 2000.
He returned to Germany with Stuttgart in 2005 and won the German championship in 2007, later briefly playing for Lazio, West Ham, Wolfsburg and Everton.
He said socialising with his fellow players had at times been difficult, explaining: “Just imagine -- 20 young lads sit together and drink.
“Most of the time you just let them do as they like, as long as the jokes are fairly funny and the talk about homosexuals does not become massively insulting.”
Hitzlsperger said that he had yet to meet a player who has made homosexuality a talking point, saying it is “ignored” in football.
He added: “In England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not a serious topic, at least not in the dressing room.”
Before going public, Hitzlsperger said he had informed Germany coach Joachim Loew and team manager Oliver Bierhoff about his decision.
Bierhoff told the DFB’s official website: “I was not aware of his homosexuality during his days as a Germany international -- it was only after he ended his career that he turned to us to inform us. That he has now come out in public deserves credit and respect. I appreciate this step. We will offer him all the support we can so that he can continue on this courageous path.”
Former DFB president Theo Zwanziger said in Die Zeit: “Finally, a footballer has had the courage to make his homosexuality public not long after his retirement. This hopefully has a positive influence on society and professional football.”
Current DFB president Wolfgang Niersbach added: “During his time as an international, Hitzlsperger has always been a role model. I had the greatest respect for him and this respect has grown now. He has decided to turn to the public, and I stand by my word to do all I can to support him.”
Former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who came out in 2004, said: “His courage deserves the greatest respect. The step into the public looks much easier than it is.”
Germany international Lukas Podolski has also offered his support to Hitzlsperger on Twitter.
Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time. pic.twitter.com/c69Oml2Ocp— Lukas-Podolski.com (@Podolski10) January 8, 2014
In September 2012, when a unnamed Bundesliga player came out in an interview with German magazine Fluter, saying he had to “be an actor every day and go into self-denial” -- the German chancellor Angela Merkel commented: “You need not fear. I am of the opinion that everyone who has the strength and courage [to come out] should know that we live in a state where he essentially does not have to be fearful. That is my political statement.”
In February 2013, American player Robbie Rogers came out and announced his retirement after a stint with Leeds United and later spoke of the difficulties gay players face.
After resuming his career with LA Galaxy, he said he had not been contacted by other players about the issue of sexuality.
"I haven't received a letter or text or anything from one footballer that wants to talk about these issues," he told BBC Newsnight.