Thomas Hitzlsperger has never shirked a challenge. In 2000, as an 18-year-old, he decided to leave his parents and six siblings in Germany to move to England. He had just been released by Bayern Munich, where he had been for eight years, but did not want to join another Bundesliga club.
He wanted a challenge – and in Aston Villa's manager he found one. John Gregory ignored Hitzlsperger for a year and a half, sending him on loan to Chesterfield towards the end of his reign, and it was not until Graham Taylor took over that the German midfielder was given his chance.
Recalled from that loan spell, Taylor immediately thrust Hitzlsperger into first-team action and he never looked back. "At that point [with only six months left on my contract] I was frustrated because I had not played," he said at the time. "I was approached by [Bayern's rivals] 1860 Munich and wouldn't have had a problem joining them but then I decided to knuckle down and make it in England." He then added, with a smile: "Now it is going so well that even the announcer can pronounce my name every now and then. That has almost been my biggest success so far."
And there you have Hitzlsperger in a nutshell. Competitive, yet self-deprecating. On Wednesday he became the most high-profile footballer to announce he is gay. It will have taken courage and it will have taken time. In the end he decided the time had come. "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," Hitzlsperger said in the interview with Die Zeit.
When he was at Villa, during those first difficult 18 months, he was supported mainly by his girlfriend Inga, as well as his parents and siblings, who came over to visit. He initially wanted to do well in the Premier League in order to show Bayern they had made a mistake in letting him go but in the end he felt so at home in England that he did not want to move. "I have always said it was a really special time for me at Villa. I had a wonderful time," he told the club website in August last year, only a month before he retired from professional football.
"It was difficult in the beginning because I was very young and in a new country but Villa as a club were fantastic. They helped me a great deal and made it far easier for me to settle in. The fans coined the name Der Hammer. So many people still call me Der Hammer now. The fans and the players at Villa used to call me it and it just stuck. It's great."
In that interview Hitzlsperger also revealed that David O'Leary, who replaced Taylor in the summer of 2003, had told him to "pass more and shoot less". "He was aware that the fans always shouted 'shoot' and his opinion was that this affected me. He said: 'Don't do that, don't follow that advice because sometimes it's better to pass.'"
Hitzlsperger won over O'Leary as well to regain his place in the starting XI – he had initially been dropped by the Irishman – and by the time he moved back to the country of his birth to join Stuttgart in 2005 he was a Germany international, having been called up by Jürgen Klinsmann in October of the previous year to make his debut against Iran.
During his career, and after he retired, Hitzlsperger worked against racism, antisemitism and other discrimination through the Gesicht Zeigen and Störungsmelder bodies. In 2010 he backed Ubuntu Africa, a film project supporting HIV-infected children in Africa, and recorded the film Thomas Hitzlsperger und die Township-Kinder in the run-up to the World Cup in South Africa. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Hitzlsperger asks an 11-year-old Andile where his father is, he starts crying. Andile's father had died eight years before, after contracting HIV. "I also started to cry," Hitzlsperger said after filming had finished. "It became acutely clear what it means for a child to lose its father."
At Stuttgart, meanwhile, Hitzlsperger became a leader. He was the captain of the team that won the Bundesliga in 2006-07, with the midfielder scoring a breathtaking volley straight from a corner to deliver the title in the decisive game against Energie Cottbus.
It was a goal worth winning any title, let alone a match (although in the end Stuttgart only drew with Cottbus). Years later, when asked by the German football magazine 11Freunde whether he still dreams about that goal, the midfielder said: "Every now and then the pictures come back into my head, especially when I get asked about that season. How many times had I tried and failed that shot in training? It is difficult to say. I had scored a few volley goals in training. Not straight from a corner but still. In a game you often fail with those attempts because the pressure is so much greater but this time I did it."
That title was the highlight of his club career. He stayed with Stuttgart until 2010 before spells with Lazio, West Ham United, Wolfsburg and Everton.
And it was perhaps telling that he, as someone who had represented Germany 52 times, played in a World Cup and a European Championship and won the German league, did not want to make a fuss when he retired four months ago. He said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Germany internationals Christoph Metzelder and Tim Borowski and leave quietly, saying: "Because that is also a statement, a statement saying: 'Hey, we aren't that important after all.'"
Hitzlsperger had offers from England and Germany but felt that time had come to hang up his boots. "Just in the last weeks and months I have a new path to pursue. I have noticed that I need something very different and a new club would have changed little." Few knew then he would be back in the headlines so soon, prepared to face perhaps his biggest challenge: to tackle homophobia in football.