BERLIN (AP) — A former World Cup player from Germany came out as gay on Wednesday, rebuking the Russian anti-gay law that threatens to tarnish next month's Sochi Olympics and challenging the longstanding stigma against homosexuality in football.
With his announcement, Thomas Hitzlsperger became the biggest name in football 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.
At many football grounds, sexually themed chants are not uncommon. Fans in Britain sometimes chant songs that are viewed as religiously, sexually or racially offensive.
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."