Updated: Thursday, 09 January 2014 20:37 | By Agence France-Presse

Hitzlsperger says gay footballers still face battle

Retired German footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger, who has come out as gay, believes that there is "a long way to go" before openly homosexual players are accepted in top-level football.

Hitzlsperger says gay footballers still face battle

Thomas Hitzlsperger on the ball for Wolfsburg against Borussia Moenchengladbach in a Bundesliga match in Moenchengladbach on August 19, 2011

Hitzlsperger, 31, publicly announced his sexuality on the website of German weekly Die Zeit on Wednesday, prompting messages of support from sporting and political figures across Europe.

"We still have a long way to go because we fear a reaction and we don't know what will happen," Hitzlsperger, who won 52 caps for Germany, told BBC radio on Thursday.

"I can't imagine playing football and doing this at the same time."

Hitzlsperger, whose former clubs include Aston Villa, Everton, Stuttgart and Lazio, joins a handful of players with experience of professional football who have announced that they are gay.

They include late English striker Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998, lower-league Swedish footballer Anton Hysen and former United States international Robbie Rogers, who plays for Los Angeles Galaxy.

Hitzlsperger decided not to reveal his sexuality until after he had finished his playing career because of fears about the reaction it would provoke, but he hopes he has helped to prepare the ground for other gay players.

"I know that my family and my closest friends, to them it's not important that I talk about my experiences as a homosexual football player," he said in a video posted on his personal website.

"But it's probably more important for those people who discriminate (against) others because of their sexuality and those people now know they have a pronounced opponent."

He added: "Hopefully by talking about it the way I do now it encourages some others, because they see they can still be professional football players, they can play at the highest level and be gay.

"It's not a contradiction, as I proved."

Hitzlsperger, who retired due to injury in September, also said it was hard to judge whether there is homophobia within the professional game.

"It's difficult to say for me whether there is an anti-gay atmosphere because so far there isn't an openly gay football player in a European league," he said.

"It's probably easier if you compare it to racism. With racism you know who people dislike when they shout things at them; it's clearly visible. But gay football players so far don't exist officially."

John Amaechi, a British former NBA basketball player who came out in 2007, said that a "toxic" atmosphere within football made it difficult for perceived outsiders to establish themselves.

"Football is toxic and not just for gay people," he told the BBC.

"It's toxic for Asians who want to play the game, it's toxic for women who want to be executives, it's toxic for black people who want to do anything but play.

"If you want to see people coming out and playing at their best because they're able to be who they are, then the culture of football must change first."

Everton manager Roberto Martinez saluted Hitzlsperger's decision to come out, saying: "We back Thomas's 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."

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