Thomas Hitzlsperger: There’s ‘a long way to go’ before a premiership star comes out and continues playing

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Ex-premiership footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger says there is “a long way to go” before there will be an openly gay man playing in top league football.

Yesterday, the 31-year-old made headlines around the world, after he revealed he is gay to a German newspaper.

On Thursday, the German former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We still have a long way to go because we fear a reaction and we don’t know what will happen,” he added: “I can’t imagine playing football and doing this at the same time.”

“Towards the end of my career, I was pretty sure I was gay, that I wanted to be with a man and live with a man,” Hitzlsperger said.

“About two years ago, I was almost at the same point where I wanted to speak out. I’ve never been ashamed of it and towards the end I thought about it.

“But I thought I still I wanted to be a football player more than I wanted issues of talking about my private life.

“Anything that was distracting me from football, I put it to one side. Certainly dealing with this issue takes a lot of time and energy so I thought: ‘I don’t really want to deal with it.'”

Commenting on yesterday’s decision, he said: “I might be the first footballer who has played in the Premier League that has done it, but there have been footballers before who have come out,” he said. “I followed these guys, and what was said, and it was quite enormous.

“If it’s players in the second or third division who come out and it’s a huge thing and everyone wants to know about it, what will it be like for someone who has played at the highest level?

“Hopefully if some players follow, one day it will become normal and not big news any more. Those that follow will have it easier because they don’t have to deal with all of that.”

Justin Fashanu was the first professional footballer in Britain to come out, in 1990, before he took his own life eight years later, aged 37.

Swedish lower league player Anton Hysen – son of former Liverpool defender Glenn Hysen – came out in an interview with a Swedish football magazine in 2011.

Former Leeds and US winger Robbie Rogers came out as gay and quit English football in February 2013.

He later reversed his decision to quit the game and signed for LA Galaxy – but as of yet Rogers has no plans to return to the English league, having previously feared the ramifications of coming out.

“I don’t know if football is such a homophobic environment,” Hitzlsperger said. “People just speculate this would be the case.

“Since we haven’t seen a gay footballer in the Premier League or the Bundesliga, it’s hard to say that this would happen. We would have to wait and see.

“I didn’t really know what to expect now. I just decided it was the right moment for me to do this and not really thinking about the reaction.

“Gay football players are invisible. There are none we know of and that’s why I don’t know how people will react to it.”

Figures in the world of football and politics, including Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker and Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton yesterday praised Hitzlsperger for his openness.

On his Facebook page, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “As an Aston Villa fan, I’ve always admired what Thomas Hitzlsperger did on the pitch – but I admire him even more today. A brave & important move.”

In a message to Hitzlsperger’s Twitter account, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he had “huge respect” for the recently retired premiership player.

Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “His courage sends a message to young people: sport is for anyone, regardless of sexuality.”

Minister for Sport and Equalities Helen Grant said to “It’s great news that Thomas Hitzlsperger has had the courage to come out today. While we have made great progress in shifting attitudes towards  the gay community, there are still many people who have hidden or who are still hiding their sexuality, through fear of homophobia. There is still more we can all do to help tackle homophobia in sport.”