Retired German soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger called for people to “face up” to homophobia in Russia ahead of the Winter Olympics after coming out as a homosexual on Wednesday.
Hitzlsperger’s announcement, in German magazine Die Zeit, makes him the first Germany international to reveal that he is gay.
Russia, which is to stage the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month, has come under international pressure after Russian President Vladimir Putin in June last year approved a law that bans the promotion of homosexuality to minors.
Calling for further pressure, Hitzlsperger told British newspaper the Guardian in an interview published late on Wednesday: “It’s important to face up to nations that discriminate against minorities, sexual or otherwise.”
“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,” he added. “I’m curious to see what will happen. I’m sure that some athletes will make a stand.”
Figures from sport and politics throughout Europe voiced their support for Hitzlsperger, but his announcement fell on a day when Paris Saint-Germain’s Brazilian defender Alex created a row about homophobia.
Speaking in a documentary about religion due to be broadcast on French pay TV channel Canal+, the born-again Christian said: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves.”
In an interview scheduled to be published in yesterday’s edition of Die Zeit, Hitzlsperger, 31, said: “I am declaring my homosexuality because I want the question of homosexuality in the world of professional sport to be out in the open.”
Hitzlsperger, capped 52 times by Germany between 2004 and 2010, added: “It is only in recent years I have come to realize I preferred living with a man.”
The midfielder, who hung up his boots at the end of last season, plied his trade in Germany, England and Italy with Aston Villa, Everton, Wolfsburg and Lazio, among others, before retiring last year.
Hitzlsperger said he had decided to come out because now was “a good time” for him and because he wanted to promote the discussion of homosexuality in professional sport.
“I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am,” he added, although he conceded that “in England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not taken seriously as an issue, at least not in the dressing room.”
Hitzlsperger’s former Germany teammate Lukas Podolski reacted to the news on Twitter by saying: “Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign of our time.”
Hitzlsperger’s former club Villa tweeted: “Everyone who knows Thomas from his time here at Villa has great respect for him, not only as the fine player he was, but also as a man.”
Outspoken Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton praised Hitzlsperger’s “courage” on Twitter, but also criticized Alex’s comments, writing: “To be religious extremist, you must first be extremely dumb in my opinion. Alex from PSG simply confirms my theory with his comments today.”