Tributes for first gay Premier League star Hitzlsperger

But some are saddened that German international did not come out until after his retirement

(Image credit: 2008 Getty Images)

FORMER German international footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger has become the most high profile player, and the first Premier League star, to come out as gay.

The midfielder, who won 52 caps for Germany and also played in the Premier League with Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton, made the announcement in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit.

He said he was talking about his sexuality in order "to further the debate about homosexuality among sports professionals", reports The Guardian. The 31-year-old, who played for Germany for six years until 2010 and also won the German Bundesliga with Stuttgart, explains: "Only in the last few years have I realised that I preferred living together with a man."

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Hitzlsperger also plays down the level of homophobia in the countries where he played. "In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room," he says. "But it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays."

Reaction to the news on social media was overwhelmingly positive, with messages of support flooding in for the footballer, who retired at the end of last season. It prompted Hitzlsperger to issue a thank you on Twitter.

Hello everyone! All these messages about my news, I am overwhelmed from this and I can't say thank you enough times!— Thomas Hitzlsperger (@ThomasHitzl) January 8, 2014

Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger on bravely being the first player to have played in the PL to 'come out'— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) January 8, 2014

Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time.— (@Podolski10) January 8, 2014

Among those to congratulate the footballer were other gay athletes including former NBA basketball star John Amaechi.

Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger - welcome to the club!— John Amaechi OBE (@JohnAmaechi) January 8, 2014

The fact that Hitzlsperger chose not to reveal his sexuality until he had retired was picked up on by some, including QPR midfielder Joey Barton, who earlier this season backed a campaign to stamp out homophobia in football by encouraging players to wear rainbow-coloured laces.

Thomas Hitzlsperger has shown a lot of courage today. Sad times when people have to wait till they retire from their chosen profession...— Joseph Barton (@Joey7Barton) January 8, 2014

Others agree. "The fact that Hitzlsperger's announcement came after he had already retired from football shows the sport still has a long way to go," says gay website Pink News, which notes that another player, US winger Robbie Rogers only revealed his sexuality after leaving Leeds in and returning to America last year. "There are currently no known openly gay footballers in the English and Scottish professional leagues," adds the website.

The news came a day after another former player, Michael Johnson, stepped down from the Football Association's Inclusion Advisory Board in the wake of a row over a comment he made in 2012, when he described homosexuality as "detestable".

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