Four months after retiring from professional football, Thomas Hitzlsperger has decided to make his sexual orientation public in order to tackle one of the few remaining taboos in the world’s most popular sport.

"I’m talking about my homosexuality because I want to advance the discussion about pro athletes being gay," he says in the latest edition of weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT.

Hitzlsperger said he felt it was time to come out now that his career was over. But realizing he was gay did not happen overnight.

"It was a long and difficult process," said the 31-year-old former midfielder, who earned 52 caps for the German national team. "Only in the past few years did I understand that I’d rather live with a man."

He said homosexuality was mostly "simply ignored" in professional football, as many players refused to talk about the topic. Certainly, no other German footballer of his caliber has ever spoken so openly about being gay.

Hitzlsperger played for the youth team of FC Bayern Munich before transferring to the English Premier League club Aston Villa in 2000. He would go on to serve as captain of Bundesliga team VfB Stuttgart, play in Italy’s Serie A for Lazio Rome, and have stints at VfL Wolfsburg and Everton FC.

"In England, Germany, or Italy, homosexuality isn’t a very important topic – at least not in the locker room," he said.

However, Hitzlsperger said he was still frequently annoyed with attitudes towards homosexuals in the world of football. "Pro football is an extremely tough discipline." "Fighting, passion and the will to win are inseparably tied together," he said, adding that many people believed the cliché that "gays are weaklings".

"I never have been ashamed of who I am," Hitzlsperger said. But that didn’t make it any easier to always bear comments by his colleagues.

"Think about it – 20 young guys sitting at a table drinking. You go along with the group, as long as the jokes are at least halfway funny and the talk about homosexuality doesn’t get massively insulting."

In his interview with DIE ZEIT, Hitzlsperger speaks about the phase of his life when he became aware he was gay and the reactions of Joachim Löw, coach of the national team, and team manager Oliver Bierhoff after he told them he had decided to come out.

Hitzlsperger has been a contributor to ZEIT ONLINE since 2009. He has often taken a different approach to football, addressing how topics such as doping, high salaries and homosexuality affect the sport.

Translation: Marc Young