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Soccer-Former Germany international Hitzlsperger says he is gay

Reuters

(Adds quotes from Merkel's spokesman)

BERLIN, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Former Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger has become one of the few high profile sportsmen, and the first well-known footballer from his country, to publicly reveal that he is gay.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert praised Hitzlsperger for going public and former foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who is openly gay, said the former player had shown courage.

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

The 31-year-old, who retired in September, played 52 times for Germany between 2004 and 2010 and spent his club career at Aston Villa, VfB Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham United, VfL Wolfsburg and Everton.

"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.

Despite soccer's global popularity, the sport has seen very few gay players come out, especially during their active careers as the fear of a negative reaction from coaches, team mates and fans forces them to keep their sexuality secret.

"It's good that he's spoken about something which is important to him," Seibert told a media briefing.

"We live in a country where nobody should be worried about making his sexuality known or concerned about intolerance. And I believe we have made enormous progress as a country and as a society in the last few decades in this area.

"We judge footballers on whether they have behaved well and worthily on and off the pitch and I believe that both are the case with Mr Hitzlsperger."

UTMOST RESPECT

Westerwelle told Die Zeit: "This courage deserves the utmost respect. The step into the public eye looks much easier than it really is."

Theo Zwanziger, former head of the German Football Federation (DFB), also praised Hitzlsperger.

"I very much welcome the important step that Thomas Hitzlsperger has taken," he said. "Finally, a footballer has the courage to make his homosexuality public, at least in a short interval after the end of his career."

"(Football) continues to be a tough business, to deal openly with homosexuality is unfortunately still not taken for granted," added Zwanziger, a member of soccer world governing body FIFA's executive committee.

"In a football team, there are players from many cultures, including those from cultures that reject homosexuality. But I am confident that sexual inclinations in football will soon no longer be an issue."

Britain's most famous case was that of former Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu, who came out in a tabloid newspaper in 1990 and committed suicide eight years later.

Former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers quit soccer and came out as gay after being released by the Yorkshire club last year.

The American's decision to restart his career at Los Angeles Galaxy prompted the New York Times to dub him "the first openly gay man to participate in a prominent North American pro league" when he made his debut against the Columbus Crew in May.

Three years ago, Germany captain Philipp Lahm said homosexuals should not come out because the repercussions could be too devastating.

"I would fear that he could end up like Justin Fashanu who after he outed himself was driven into such a corner that he ended up committing suicide," he said. (Reporting by Thomas Seythal in Berlin; Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne; Editing by Ken Ferris and Martyn Herman)

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