Thomas Hitzlsperger, German-born former Aston Villa and West Ham player, has announced that he is gay.

The 31 year old, who retired from professional football four months ago, made the announcement in the German newspaper, Die Zeit.

Speaking to Die Zeit, Hitzlsperger, who has played for Germany 52 times, said that he had come out because he wanted to “further the debate about homosexuality among sports professionals.”

He justified his silence on the matter until after his retirement from the sport, saying that homosexuality would “simply be ignored” in football. Nonetheless, he stated that he had “never been ashamed” of his sexuality, although he admitted that it had been “a long and difficult process” coming to terms with his sexuality.

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Although Hitzlsperger is the highest profile footballer to come out as gay, to date, he is only the fourth footballer to do so.

Hitzlsperger’s coming out coincides with an upsurge in movements aimed at wiping out homophobia in football. Kick It Out, which was initially founded in 1993 to tackle racism in the sport, now encompasses all types of bigotry in football. And in 2008, the Justin Campaign was created in memory of Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay football player, who committed suicide in 1998.

However, campaigns to stamp out homophobia in the sport have met with debatable success. The most recent example in the UK is Stonewall’s ‘Right Behind Gay Footballers’ campaign, which was slammed for its links with betting company Paddy Power and for relying on gay stereotypes.