By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Thomas Hitzlsperger, the first well-known footballer from Germany to say he is gay, hopes it will one day be normal for players to talk about a boyfriend with team mates.
The 31-year-old, who won 52 Germany caps and also played for Aston Villa, VfB Stuttgart, Lazio, Everton and West Ham United, has sparked a national debate at home about tolerance.
Yet Hitzlsperger, who retired because of injury in September, was not sure he would advise active players to reveal they are gay.
"Everyone has to decide that for themselves," he told Bild newspaper on Friday when asked if he would encourage anyone else to come out.
"But it would be great if it were normal for a soccer player to be able to talk about his new boyfriend in the locker room and not just about a new girlfriend - and that it wouldn't be considered as anything unusual anymore."
Despite soccer's global popularity, the sport has seen precious few gay players come out, especially during their active careers as fears of negative reactions from coaches, team mates and fans force them to keep their sexuality secret.
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.
Former Germany captain Lothar Matthaeus once said: "A gay man cannot play soccer" while Germany's current captain, Philipp Lahm, advised homosexual players against coming out because the repercussions could be too devastating.
Yet Hitzlsperger has been widely praised in the German media and by political and business leaders for his courage, while prime time talk shows have tackled the issue. One TV comedian, Stefan Raab, was rebuked for making off-colour jokes.
Many Germans had long wondered why no top soccer player had come out in a country with a high degree of tolerance. Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit became the first mainstream politician to publicly reveal he was gay in 2001, a widely applauded step that led to other top politicians coming out.
"For a backward slice of our society there were no gays - in soccer," wrote Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper. "There have been 5,566 players in the Bundesliga in the last 50 years and not one of them was gay until now. The truth is that dozens if not hundreds of gay soccer players were afraid to come out."
Hitzlsperger said he was pleased that he had not received any negative reaction, although he said only two players had been in touch with him since he came out.
In a video message released on Wednesday, Hitzlsperger explained his motives by saying he planned to speak out against discrimination.
"It doesn't matter to my family and friends that I'm talking openly about homosexuality," he said. "It's only important for the homophobes out there who discriminate against others because of their sexuality. They should be warned that with me they've got one enemy more now." (Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Toby Davis)