After more then a decade in Europe's top leagues, former Bayern Munich youth product and German international Thomas Hitzlsperger has hung up his boots in dramatic fashion. After announcing his retirement last September, the 31-year-old also dropped a bombshell today by announcing that he is gay. By doing so he has become the first openly gay athlete in the top leagues of Europe in a landscape of sports culture that has long been known to have a stigma, and at times outright bigotry, against homosexuality.
Speaking out through German publication Zeit, Hitzlsperger had the following to say about his experience:
"It's been a long and difficult process [of becoming aware of being gay]. Only in the last few years have I realised that I preferred living together with a man,"
"In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room,"
"I was never ashamed of being who I am but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays. You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting."
"Being gay is topic that is 'ignored' in football and not 'a serious topic in the changing room'. Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are intrinsically linked, that doesn't fit the cliché: 'Gays are soft'". - Zeit via Guardian (1)
By doing so, Hitzlsperger joins a small, yet growing, group of professional athletes who have come out in recent years, notably including LA Galaxy and former Nottingham Forest winger Robbie Rogers. Their actions shed light on yet another form of intolerance rampant throughout European football. His former teammates have voiced their support for his choice:
Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time.- @Podolski10
Proud of you, Thomas! You did the right thing. 'm Proud of you. Good decision and in my view right time
The former German international spent 8 years with the Bayern Munich academy system in the 1990's before leaving for the (hopefully) greener pastures of the English midlands. Once there, it took some time before he excelled at Aston Villa, earning him the nickname "der Hammer" from the fans. After 5 years in England he returned to Germany, spending five years at VfB Stuttgart where he won the league championship in 2007 alongside Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira. Since then he has bounced around Europe with spells at Lazio, West Ham, Wolfsburg and Everton.
Hitzlsperger will always be Bayern Munich, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors as he leaves the world of professional football as a player.