Photo Gallery: Hitzlsperger's Football Career

Foto: dictum law communications/ dpa

Breaking the Silence Broad Support for Footballer's Coming Out

Former German national team player Thomas Hitzlsperger on Wednesday became the first professional footballer in the country to acknowledge his homosexuality. The upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, he said, was a reason for going public now.

It is the kind of sensation that should no longer really be one. On Wednesday, retired professional football player Thomas Hitzlsperger, who was long a fixture on Germany's national team, became the first high-profile German soccer player to publicly announce his homosexuality.

"For a number of years, I have taken the view that the intrusive questions about my sexuality and that of other footballers have to stop," Hitzlsperger said in a statement  released on his new website , which went live at midnight on Wednesday night. "They force weaker people to live a lie. If the issue of homosexuality is to be debated, however, then I would like to offer my own contribution to what is being said, glossed over or concealed."

In his statement, Hitzlsperger said that he believed today's society is much more open than many believe and that sexual orientation should "no longer be treated as a scandal." The public reaction to the player's coming out would seem to support that statement. Politicians of all stripes released statements on Wednesday praising Hitzlsperger for his courage, including the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"We live in a country in which nobody should be afraid to acknowledge their sexuality only due to fear of intolerance," said Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert. In Germany, he went on, football players are judged on the basis of whether they behave "well and with dignity" on the field and off. Hitzlsperger, he said, is a good example for both.

'Looks Easier Than It Is'

Prominent gay politicians in Germany likewise praised Hitzlsperger, who played for teams in Germany, England and Italy during his 12-year career, which ended in 2013. Former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the respected weekly Die Zeit that "his courage deserves great respect. ... Going public looks much easier than it really is."

Green politician Volker Beck, one of the first openly gay members of German parliament, said that he too has great respect for Hitzlsperger. "I hope that Hitzlsperger's courageous step will contribute to finally ending this taboo. It is now up to (Germany's professional football organization) DFB to encourage active players."

Meanwhile, the chairman of the national Green Party, Cem Özdemir, used the occasion to call for equality for gay civil unions in Germany, which are still not on the same footing as heterosexual marriage. "This is about justice and a making this more normal in our society," he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper. The politician said he also hoped Hitzlsperger's move would help ensure that the coming out of a professional soccer player in the future might become so normal that it no longer produced newspaper headlines. "At the same time, we fans also need to ensure that there is no place in the stadiums for homophobia."

Several players also threw their support behind Hitzlsperger's coming out, including national-team veteran Lukas Podolski, as did DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach. "During his stint on the national team, Thomas Hitzlsperger was always a positive example for whom I had the greatest respect," Niersbach said in a statement. "This respect has now grown further."

'It Took Me a Long Time to Realize How I Feel'

In his video statement released at midnight, Hitzlsperger was careful to avoid the impression that he was only revealing his homosexuality now because he was no longer playing professional football. "I didn't (come out earlier) because it took me a long time to realize how I feel," he said.

Still, in comments to Die Zeit he noted that the timing of his announcement wasn't completely without significance. "The Olympic Games in Sochi are approaching and I think there need to be more critical voices against the campaigns pursued by several governments against homosexuals," he said.

Hitzlsperger notes in the online video that it is only a matter of time before an active professional player acknowledges his homosexuality but is careful to avoid branding the sport as being homophobic. "Homosexuality is simply ignored in football," he says in the German version of the video. "In England, Germany or Italy, it is not a serious topic, at least not in the locker room."

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