Thomas Hitzlsperger: Openly gay top-flight player some way off

Thomas Hitzlsperger says there is "a long way to go" before there will be an openly gay man playing in a top league.

The ex-Aston Villa midfielder, 31, who retired because of injury in September, revealed his sexuality on Wednesday.

"We still have a long way to go because we fear a reaction and we don't know what will happen," Hitzlsperger, who won 52 caps for Germany, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I can't imagine playing football and doing this at the same time."

Hitzlsperger's club career

  • August 2000: The 18-year-old joins Aston Villa from Bayern Munich's youth set-up
  • August 2005: After almost 100 appearances for Villa, he makes a free transfer move to Stuttgart and wins the Bundesliga in 2006-07 season
  • January 2010: Joins Lazio but only makes six appearances for the Italian team
  • June 2010: Moves to West Ham on a free transfer, but plays just 11 times for the club
  • August 2011: Signs for Wolfsburg on a free transfer following West Ham's relegation from Premier League
  • October 2012: Joins Everton on short-term deal, making seven appearances for the Toffees

Hitzlsperger, who also had spells at West Ham and Everton, admitted he thought about coming out while he was still playing.

But he decided against doing so because he felt the resulting scrutiny on him might have proved too much of a distraction from on-pitch matters.

"Towards the end of my career, I was pretty sure I was gay, that I wanted to be with a man and live with a man," Hitzlsperger said.

"About two years ago, I was almost at the same point where I wanted to speak out. I've never been ashamed of it and towards the end I thought about it.

"But I thought I still I wanted to be a football player more than I wanted issues of talking about my private life.

"Anything that was distracting me from football, I put it to one side. Certainly dealing with this issue takes a lot of time and energy so I thought: 'I don't really want to deal with it.'"

In other sports, high-profile athletes have openly spoken about their sexuality, with Olympic diver Tom Daley revealing in December he was in a relationship with a man.

However, examples in football are less common. In 1990, former England Under-21 international Justin Fashanu was the first professional footballer in Britain to come out as gay. He retired from football in 1997 and took his own life a year later, aged 37.

Culture must change - Amaechi

Swedish footballer Anton Hysen, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysen, announced his sexuality in an interview with a Swedish football magazine in 2011. In February 2013, former United States and Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers said he was gay in a post on his website.

Hitzlsperger believes that for a top footballer to declare they are gay while still playing, there would need to be less of a frenzy concerning the possibility.

"I might be the first footballer who has played in the Premier League that has done it, but there have been footballers before who have come out," he said. "I followed these guys, and what was said, and it was quite enormous.

"If it's players in the second or third division who come out and it's a huge thing and everyone wants to know about it, what will it be like for someone who has played at the highest level?

"Hopefully if some players follow, one day it will become normal and not big news any more. Those that follow will have it easier because they don't have to deal with all of that."

Analysis

"If he had done it during his professional career, it might have been a disaster for him in the stadiums because it is an unusual thing to show your sexuality. But to come out after his career has given him a new status in Germany. A lot of footballers have given him encouraging comments on Twitter and Facebook."

Rogers said in July 2013 that the attitude of fans could prevent gay players coming out while retired basketball star John Amaechi, 43, the first NBA player to come out as gay, doubts other footballers will follow because "football is toxic" and its culture must change.

But Hitzlsperger is not certain what the reaction would be.

"I don't know if football is such a homophobic environment," he said. "People just speculate this would be the case.

"Since we haven't seen a gay footballer in the Premier League or the Bundesliga, it's hard to say that this would happen. We would have to wait and see.

"I didn't really know what to expect now. I just decided it was the right moment for me to do this and not really thinking about the reaction.

"Gay football players are invisible. There are none we know of and that's why I don't know how people will react to it."