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First high-profile former German soccer star says he is gay

Morris Mac Matzen / Reuters

File photo of German national soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger listening to national anthem before the 2010 World Cup qualification soccer match against Finland in Hamburg in 2009.

MAINZ, Germany --  A former player on Germany's national World Cup team has become the most high-profile soccer star to publicly say he is gay.

"I'm making my homosexuality public because I would like to advance the discussion of homosexuality among professional athletes," Thomas Hitzlsperger, 31, told Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper in an interview that will be published on Thursday.

Homosexuality is still widely regarded as a taboo subject in the highly competitive ranks of international soccer.

Being gay is a topic that is "simply ignored" in soccer, Hitzlsperger said.

"Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are intrinsically linked, which does not fit the cliché of ‘gays being softies,’” said Hitzlsperger, who represented Germany in 52 international matches between 2004 and 2010.

The prominent midfielder who played for European top teams like Bayern Munich, Lazio Rome and Aston Villa, retired in September.

"In England, Germany and Italy, homosexuality is not an issue that is discussed in earnest, not in the dressing-room at any rate," he said.

"I was never ashamed of being who I am, but it was not always easy to sit at a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays. You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting," said Hitzlsperger, who had been known under the nickname 'Hitz, The Hammer' among his fans in England.

International soccer has seen very few gay players come out, especially during their active careers, out of fear of retribution by coaches, players and fans.

A lot of the fear comes out of a tragic case in Britain where former Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu came out in a tabloid newspaper in 1990 and committed suicide eight years later.

For years, soccer officials in Germany have been advocating for more tolerance for minority groups, such as homosexuals and black players, and they were quick to support Hitzlsperger’s announcement.

Prominently posted on the front page of the German Soccer Federation (DFB) website under the headline "Support for Hitzlsperger," the president of Germany's highest soccer authority wrote: 

“During his time as a player on the national team, Thomas Hitzlsperger always was a role model, who I had the highest respect for – and this respect has now grown further."

Other experts also welcomed the coming out and called the decision “brave,” but criticized that only a few have shown the courage to speak out.

"Almost eight years the casting show dragged on, but now Germany has its gay super kicker,” wrote Ronny Blaschke, author of a book about a homosexual amateur soccer player, which was published in 2008.

"I hope that this coming out will now also bring more tolerance on lower levels, in amateur and youth sports," Blaschke told NBC News.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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