Football - Hitzlsperger: Gay players are scared of coming out

Thomas Hitzlsperger believes gay footballers are living in fear of the repercussions they could face in coming out during their playing careers.

The 31-year-old former Germany, Aston Villa and Stuttgart midfielder announced on Wednesday that he is gay, having chosen to wait until the end of his playing career before going public with his news.

He becomes the highest-profile openly gay footballer the game has known, and hopes his move can persuade other closeted players to be open about their sexuality.

But Hitzlsperger, who also played for Everton and Lazio before retiring in September, accepts any player revealing his homosexuality in professional football could have a hard time.

There are many openly gay players in the women's game, including England captain Casey Stoney, but none active at a high level in men's football.

Hitzlsperger wrote on his website: "I have taken a conscious decision to confront publicly the prejudice and hostility shown towards homosexuals. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

"Homosexuality is simply ignored in football.

"The media, on the other hand, have been interested in the subject for years. It's just that the players concerned have not dared to declare their inclinations because the world of football still sees itself to some extent as a macho environment.

"The image of a gay player is typified by cliche and prejudice. The reality is rather different.

"People see a gay footballer as a contradiction in terms. And that is why virtually no professional player wants to expose himself to this kind of pressure."

Hitzlsperger initially came out in an interview with Germany's Die Zeit newspaper.

British Olympic diver Tom Daley announced in December he was in a relationship with a man while Surrey and England wicketkeeper Steven Davies, former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain Gareth Thomas and NBA player John Amaechi have all come out in recent years.

Hitzlsperger said: "Over the past year, a few professional athletes in other sporting disciplines have revealed their homosexuality.

"This is encouraging and the hope is that at some stage, it will cease to be something to write or talk about.

"Every human being should be able to live without fear of discrimination due to his or her background, skin colour, sexual orientation or religion.

"I do not see this as a political statement, but as a self-evident fact. I do hope, however, to take the public debate a step further. Our society is more open and tolerant than many people believe.

"By taking this step in public, I hope to be able to encourage young players and professional athletes. I firmly believe that professional sport and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive."

Everton manager Roberto Martinez mirrors Hitzlsperger's hopes that any gay sports man or woman would be fully supported should they choose to come out.

"It's not just football," he said.

"When you are competing in your daily work sometimes there is the professional, then there is the human being. Sometimes, in some workplaces, it is harder than others for the human side to be itself when you work as a professional.

"Ideally, you would love to be yourself and have the human being at the same level as the professional. (But) it's not just in football - there are many walks of life where that's not the case."

Hitzlsperger last played for Everton back in March 2013 and Martinez, who was in charge of Wigan during the German's career at Goodison Park, hopes he will feel happier following his announcement.

The Spaniard added: "You always feel as a footballer and as a human being you need to be able to be happy and that's what I would support. As a manager you want your players to be free and honest.

"We back Thomas' decision to be happy as a person and coming out and making the statement he made. That's important in any walk of life, not just sport. You need to be yourself and be able to express what your sexuality is."