BERLIN (AP) — A former World Cup player from Germany came out as gay Wednesday, rebuking the Russian anti-gay law that threatens to tarnish next month's Sochi Olympics and challenging the longstanding stigma against homosexuality in soccer.
With his announcement, Thomas Hitzlsperger became the biggest name in soccer to declare he is gay. He said he wants to help break down the prejudice against homosexuality that has long permeated the macho, testosterone-fueled culture of the world's most popular sport.
"I am expressing my sexuality because I want to promote the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes," Hitzlsperger said in the German newspaper Die Zeit, a statement that was widely welcomed by his countrymen and former teammates.
His disclosure came less than a month before the start of the Winter Games in Sochi, which have been the focus of a furious backlash in the West against a recently enacted Russian law banning gay "propaganda."
The Olympics "are ahead of us, and I think we need some critical voices to counter the campaigns by various governments against homosexuality," Hitzlsperger said.
Before retiring from the game four months ago, the 31-year-old former midfielder played in England's Premier League and in Germany as well as Italy. He is the first German player to come out and the first from the Premier League.
The fact that Hitzlsperger waited until his career was over to make the announcement reflected the persistent taboo in the game, where many players are reluctant to discuss homosexuality because they fear the reaction of teammates and fans.
Hitzlsperger said he felt the time was right to broach a subject that was "simply ignored."
"I get particularly annoyed by the fact that people who know the least are precisely the people to talk the loudest about this issue," he added, noting that the word "gay" is commonly used as a slur against footballers.
In many soccer stadiums, sexually themed chants are not uncommon. Fans in Britain sometimes chant songs that are viewed as religiously, sexually or racially offensive.
David Beckham never claimed it was a reason for leaving England, but he was often subjected to opposing fans singing about his wife's alleged sexual preferences.
In many European countries, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe, thousands of fans chant obscene songs, defying all attempts to stop them.
Hitzlsperger said his own record shattered the idea that gays are "sissies."
"I was a pretty tough guy with an extremely strong shot. That's not something many can claim," he said. "My nickname is 'The Hammer.' It's complete nonsense that gay men are 'unmanly.'"
In England, outspoken Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton praised Hitzlsperger for his "courage" but lamented that he had to wait until now to make his announcement.
"Sad times when people have to wait until they retire from their chosen profession before they feel other people will judge them solely on who the human being is," Barton said on Twitter. "Shame on all of us as a society."
Hitzlsperger said he grew up in a small community in Catholic-dominated Bavaria, where homosexuality was treated as something unnatural or even criminal. He had a long-term relationship with a girlfriend and planned to marry her.
"But then after eight years, the relationship ended without my partner knowing about my feelings for men. That was six years ago," Hitzlsperger said. "Only in the last few years did it dawn on me that I would rather live with a man."
Hitzlsperger represented Germany at the 2006 World Cup and 2008 European Championship. He played for Bayern Munich's youth teams before switching to English club Aston Villa in 2001. He later played for Stuttgart, the Italian club Lazio, Wolfsburg and then 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 to 2010. "That's why it's not easy to find anyone in the football scene who will talk publicly about his sexual orientation. To this day, I don't know any footballer personally who has made this an issue.
"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."
Last February, American player Robbie Rogers declared he was gay before announcing his retirement. He returned to action with the Los Angeles Galaxy after an overwhelmingly positive reaction to his declaration.
Former English player Justin Fashanu, who played for Norwich and Nottingham Forest, was the first soccer player to say openly that he was gay in 1990. He committed suicide eight years later at age 37.
Swedish defender Anton Hysen came out in 2011.
Athletes from other sports have also spoken about their sexuality. Last month, British Olympic diver Tom Daley said he was in a relationship with a man. Other high-profile gay athletes include former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas, English cricketer Steven Davies and former NBA players Jason Collins and John Amaechi.
On Twitter, German forward Lukas Podolski welcomed his former international teammate's announcement, calling it "brave and right" and "an important sign in our time."
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert praised Hitzlsperger's announcement on behalf of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"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," Seibert said.
German soccer federation president Wolfgang Niersbach said Hitzlsperger "was always an example for whom I had the highest respect, and this respect is even greater now."
Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff said players were unaware of Hitzlsperger's sexuality until after his retirement, when the player informed both him and Germany coach Joachim Loew.
Said Bierhoff: "We'll give him every support so he can continue on his courageous path."
Associated Press Writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report.