Former Premier League footballer and German international talks to Raphael Honigstein about how he wanted to tell the world he was gay while he was still playing in Germany for Wolfsburg, but was advised against it
Thomas Hitzlsperger had managed to stay away from his computer for a long time. In the morning he had become the highest-profile footballer to announce he is gay, and in the hours afterwards he had not checked the public reaction. When I speak to him I tell him that support has been flooding in from fans, fellow footballers, well-wishers – and yes, even Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.
"But where's David Cameron?" the former Germany international asks with playful indignation. "He's a Villa supporter, after all!" The prime minister, as it turns out, would soon add his voice to a raft of high-profile well-wishers that included Angela Merkel, the German national team manager Joachim Löw, and the former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who is also gay.
They all talked about the former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder's "courage" in breaking one of sport's last great taboos: Hitzlsperger, capped 52 times by his country, is the first German footballer to reveal he is gay. He is also the first former Premier League footballer to do so.
It was a moment he always knew would come, and one he dreaded. The decision to address this issue publicly was a "hard, difficult one" that took a number of years to gestate, he tells me. The 31-year-old, who retired from the game last year because of injuries, first told his friends and family.
"I was surprised and happy that they were all totally OK with it. Where I come from, in rural Bavaria, homosexuality is considered 'un-normal'. I knew that there would be negative reactions from those who will never understand it, also towards my family, but that didn't bother them. I've had nothing but total support from them."
Hitzlsperger, who was engaged to his childhood sweetheart and broke up with her shortly before the scheduled wedding six years ago, was not certain of his sexual orientation until his career was almost over. "I finally figured out that I preferred living with a man," he says.
He had thought about coming out while still playing for Wolfsburg in 2011-12 but then listened to people who warned him of the negative consequences. "They all said 'don't do it, a big wave will crash on you'," he says. "But in the end I realised that nobody knows. There was no precedent, so everybody could only speculate on what would happen."
While Germany as a country has noticeably become more and more relaxed about homosexuality in recent years, he had also noted there was an unhelpful media obsession with finding the first gay footballer. All sorts of well-intended but ultimately unhelpful interventions from heterosexual players – who either opined that gay players would benefit from coming out or cautioned against it – did not exactly fill him with confidence that this was indeed the right step.
Homosexuality was rarely a big topic in any of the dressing rooms he encountered, he says, and "the subject only came up when people were speculating about someone else's sexuality, but never in their presence."
There was the odd incidence of crass homophobia, as well, "but that was just your general, non-specific football talk," says Hitzlsperger. "I too, used derogatory terms like 'what a gay pass' without thinking about it when I was younger."
The former international, who played in the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 European Championship, maintains that he did not have to lie about his sexuality and that team-mates eventually stopped asking about his lack of a girlfriend.
In any case, he says, an ultimately fruitless battle to regain full fitness after a series of operations was more important to him than telling his colleagues about his sexual orientation.
The announcement of his retirement last September brought more time to think, however. "It really helped me to see that other professional sports people were acknowledging their sexuality. I read about John Amaechi, Gareth Thomas and Tom Daley. They weren't footballers but the fact that they went public gave me the feeling that I was not alone. I began to think that I could help other footballers who might be in the same shoes, so that they could see that here's someone who was even an international. I wanted to encourage them, the way that those guys and Robbie Rogers encouraged me."
He closely studied the fall-out of their coming outs, too, he says, and felt empowered. "They all said it was good for them." Hitzlsperger is unwilling to make wide-scale recommendations – "everyone has to decide for themselves" – and is unwilling to predict when the first active footballer in a European top league will follow his lead.
"But the important thing for me is to show that being homosexual and professional football player is something that is normal. The perceived contradiction between playing football, the man's game, and being homosexual is nonsense. I don't think anyone has ever come away from watching a game with me thinking there's something wrong or 'too soft' with my game," he adds, with a chuckle.
Known as "the Hammer" among supporters because of his fierce shot with his left foot, Hitzlsperger always enjoyed a robust challenge.
"You hear the word courage a lot," he says, when the talk returns to the reactions he has experienced so far. "That's nice to hear, but it's part of the problem, of course. That's something that should change. I sincerely hope that we'll see the when nobody mentions courage in these circumstances anymore, because it will be seen as totally normal that a sports person will speak about his homosexuality, the way others talk about their wives and girlfriends. It won't be easy for the next person to be the truly the first in that regard but maybe I've been able to help them a tiny bit."
Hitzlsperger, who has addressed issues such as racism and antisemitism in German football before, is acutely aware that there is a political dimension to his move, with the Olympic Games in Sochi about to begin. "It's important to face up to nations that discriminate against minorities, sexual or otherwise," he says. "I'm fine with the fact that my story will be mentioned in relation to the Games, because the situation in Russia is something that needs to be talked about. I'm curious to see what will happen. I'm sure that some athletes will make a stand".
Hitzlsperger is under no illusion that football's attitudes will change overnight. On the day of his interview with the Guardian, the Paris St-Germain defender Alex, a former Chelsea player, insisted that "god created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves".
Hitzlsperger says: "You'll always have those guys, but it's sad that they don't think a little deeper about what they're saying. I feel sorry for them, really".
Still, the emphatically positive response by politicians, footballers and fans have left him in an optimistic mood and at ease with himself. "It's good to know, not just for me but for others who are still playing now, that those at the top have no problem, that they support you. When the chancellor comes out in your favour, you know that it's safe being homosexual in this country, that you won't be discriminated. There will always be a small minority who think otherwise but hopefully, their numbers become fewer and fewer over the next years".