BERLIN (AP) — A former World Cup player from Germany became the biggest name in soccer to come out as gay, saying he wants to break down the stigma of homosexuality in sports.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, a former midfielder who played in England's Premier League and in Germany, made the announcement Wednesday in a German newspaper four months after his retirement from the game.
"I am expressing my sexuality because I want to promote the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes," Hitzlsperger told Die Zeit.
The 31-year-old Hitzlsperger said he felt now was the right time to approach a subject he felt was "simply ignored."
"Only in the last few years did it dawn on me that I would rather live with a man," said Hitzlsperger, the first German player to announce he is gay.
Hitzlsperger represented Germany at the 2006 World Cup, and also played for clubs in England, Italy and Germany, finishing his career last year at Liverpool-based Everton in the Premier League.
"Homosexuality is not a serious issue in England, Germany or Italy, not in the dressing room in any case," said Hitzlsperger, who made 52 appearances for Germany's national team from 2004-11.
He said he resented the contradiction of soccer being a sport where "fighting, passion and the will to win are intrinsically linked," compared to the stereotype that "gays are sissies."
"I was never ashamed of how I am," said Hitzlsperger, adding that the behavior of some of his teammates was sometimes hard to take.
"Think about it. 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," he said.
Hitzlsperger is the most high profile soccer player, active or retired, to come out as gay.
Last February, American player Robbie Rogers declared he was gay before announcing his retirement. He returned to action after an overwhelmingly positive reaction to his declaration.
Germany forward Lukas Podolski welcomed Hitzlsperger's announcement.
"Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time," Podolski wrote on Twitter.
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert welcomed Hitzlsperger's announcement on behalf of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"We live in a country where nobody should be afraid of acknowledging their sexuality for fear of intolerance. And I think that as a country, as a society, we've made enormous progress in this area," Seibert said. "We judge footballers by whether they conduct themselves well and with dignity on and off the pitch, and I believe both are true for Mr. Hitzlsperger."
Former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who is openly gay, and former German soccer federation president Theo Zwanziger both praised Hitzlsperger for his "courage" in coming out.
Hitzlsperger played for Bayern Munich's youth teams before switching to English club Aston Villa in 2001. He later played for Stuttgart, Italian club Lazio, Wolfsburg and then Everton.