Retired German soccer star announces he's gay

The World
Thomas Hitzlsperger, when he played for the English team, West Ham United, warming-up before a game in 2011.

Thomas Hitzlsperger, when he played for the English team, West Ham United, warming-up before a game in 2011.

Wiki Commons

German professional soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out of the closet this week.

Hitzlsperger is a former player, actually — just retired. But his announcement was big news because there are so few male pro athletes — active or retired — who are openly gay. Hitzlsperger told the BBC that it just made sense for him to wait until now to speak out.

"I just decided it's the right moment for me to do this, not really thinking about the reaction. Of course, I asked people before, if it's OK doing this. About two years ago, I was almost at the same point where I wanted to speak out, but then I've been warned by several people. They said it's too much while you're playing football," Hitzlsperger says.

"And it proved to be right, because it was hard work. The last couple of weeks, I've been extremely busy to prepare myself. I can't imagine playing football and doing this at the same time."

In the US, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines last April when he came out as gay. Collins was the first active athlete in any of the four major male American sports leagues to come out. He's had trouble finding a team since, though he had already had a decade-long career.

Then there was American soccer player Robbie Rogers. He came out as gay about a year ago and felt obliged to quit his pro team in England at the same time. Rogers has since re-started his career in the US.

Some have described the atmosphere surrounding the top European soccer leagues as "toxic" toward gay people. But Hitzlsperger — who played in Germany's Bundesliga and England's Premiership — says he's not so sure about that.

"I don't know if football is such a homophobic environment. People just speculate that this would be the case. But since we don't know [and] we have not seen a gay player in the Premiership or Bundesliga, it's hard to say that this will happen. We have to wait and see," he adds.

Hitzlsperger says he hopes his coming out will help other gay athletes. And he hopes that being a gay athlete will, one day, not be such a big deal.

His decision to come out has received support from a number of leading figures in world soccer. Among them, Sepp Blatter, the head of soccer governing body FIFA. His statement said, in part, that "unfortunately, prejudices still exist within the game."

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