The highest level of professional soccer is one step closer to seeing its first active gay player. Former German international and Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who is retired, came out as gay this week in an interview with German magazine Die Zeit.
The Munich-born player has represented the German national team in more than 50 appearance, and has played for top-tier clubs in England, Germany, and Italy.
Hitzlsperger told Die Zeit that he came out in hopes to “advance the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes.” When asked why he waiting until stepping away from the game to make his announcement, he simply said that homosexuality “is a topic that is ignored in football and not a serious topic in the changing room.”
The 31-year-old Hitzlsperger went on to say that he was “never ashamed” of his sexuality, but admitted that coming to terms with it was “a long and difficult process” and that “only in recent years has it dawned on me that I would prefer to live with another man.”
Immediately expressing his support for Hitzlsperger via Twitter, fellow German player and Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski tweeted, “Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time.” LGBT rights supporter and Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton also praised Hitzlsperger's courage but still expressed frustration that players still do not feel comfortable coming out while active, referring to the current situation as "sad times."
As he came out post-retirement, Hitzlsperger’s announcement is drawing comparisons to that of American Robbie Rogers, who came out after temporarily stepping away from the game in 2013. Unlike the Rogers, who featured only in England’s second division, Hitzlsperger has played in the top European leagues, even winning the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2007. He was also called up to the German national team by then-coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who now coaches the U.S. national team.
With Hitzlsperger’s revelation, many are optimistic that homosexuality will become less taboo in a sport plagued by homophobia and racism throughout Europe. The 1998 suicide of gay English player Justin Fashanu may have caused some players to think twice about coming out. But he Football Association, England’s governing body for soccer, continues to fight antigay prejudice. Its current Football v. Homophobia campaign states, “Anything which stops people participating and enjoying the national game of football has to be tackled and eradicated.”