Gay rights activist has special praise for the Sun newspaper's anti-homophobic leader column about the retired Aston Villa player who outed himself
The supportive tabloid coverage of Thomas Hitzlsperger's announcement that he is gay will embolden footballers and other young people to be open about their sexuality, said leading gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
The activist said that fear of a backlash from the media has discouraged public figures from coming out, but the positive response to Hitzlsperger suggested this may be a thing of the past.
He reserved special praise for the Sun, which hailed the former German international on its front page as a "winner" and "brave" on Thursday. "The Sun's coverage mirrors the huge positive shift in public attitudes towards gay people," Tatchell said.
"The praise and tributes showered on Thomas will, hopefully, send a signal to current players that it's safe to come out. Indeed, judging from the public reaction, any footballer who comes out it is likely to experience reputational enhancement rather than damage.
"Cynics could say that coming out is now a good PR move that will put a player in the headlines, boost their public support and probably lead to new sponsorship opportunities."
Hitzlsperger, 31, a former Aston Villa player, spent two weeks bracing himself for the media coverage of his announcement, which he made in the German newspaper Die Zeit, in its print edition on Thursday and on its website the day before. On Wednesday he also gave an interview to the Guardian in which he revealed that the example of other gay sports stars, including Gareth Thomas and Tom Daley, had encouraged him to come out.
His first day as an openly gay man was spent responding to messages of support on Twitter, including tweets from the British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the Swedish footballer Anton Hysén, who made the same announcement to slightly less fanfare in 2011.
Writing on his personal website, Hitzlsperger said he hoped it would soon "cease to be something to write or talk about".
"I have taken a conscious decision to confront publicly the prejudice and hostility shown towards homosexuals. I have nothing to be ashamed of.
"Homosexuality is simply ignored in football. The media … have been interested in the subject for years. It's just that the players concerned have not dared to declare their inclinations because the world of football still sees itself to some extent as a macho environment."
In his native Germany, Hitzlsperger's announcement made practically every front page of the big-selling national titles. The tabloid Bild carried a huge banner headline with the words: "Respect! Ex-national footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger expresses boldly ... Yes, I love men!"
Berlin broadsheet Der Tagesspiegel praised Hitzlsperger for daring to become the first high-profile gay footballer, saying: "Thomas Hitzlsperger has done something that no prominent footballer has ever dared to do before. The ex-international has made his sexuality open. Is this the end of a taboo?"
Over the whole front page of the broadsheet Die Tageszeitung, Hitzlsperger is shown giving a jubilant thumbs-up next to a caption saying: "The former international Thomas Hitzlsperger has outed himself as gay. Before him no German international had ever dared to do this ... olé, olé, Super Thomas, olé."
But it was the Sun that pleasantly surprised gay rights supporters in Britain. In a leader column, the red-top condemned homophobes as a "moronic minority" and said it would take "almost superhuman bravery" for a top-flight footballer to follow in Hitzlsperger's footsteps.
"For the Sun to run that front page sends a really powerful and positive message to millions of readers and lesbian, gay and bisexual people that it's okay to be gay and that the world is changing," said Sam Dick, director of campaigns at the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall.
Tatchell, the most prominent gay rights activist in Britain, said it was nevertheless "shocking" that the coming out of a retired footballer in 2014 prompts such mammoth news coverage. He added that there remained a "lingering homophobia in the not so beautiful game" that prevents other prominent footballers from coming out.
"A person's homosexuality shouldn't be a big deal but obviously it is. Openly gay players are a rarity. In the past, fear of homophobic media coverage has been a significant factor holding back players from coming out. Quite clearly Thomas's experience shows that fear is unfounded," he said.
• This article was amended on 10 January 2013. The earlier version said Thomas Hitzlsperger made his announcement "in the German newspaper Die Zeit on Wednesday". To clarify: the print edition of Die Zeit comes out on Thursdays, but the announcement first appeared on its website on Wednesday.