Thomas Hitzlsperger enjoyed a remarkable playing career, spanning 12 years and six clubs. His form across spells with Aston Villa, Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham United, Wolfsburg and Everton as a marauding midfielder, saw him win 52 caps for Germany, while his ferocious left foot earned him the nickname “The Hammer.”
After retiring from the sport in 2013, Hitzlsperger carved out a career as head of sport at Stuttgart and then served as CEO before leaving in 2022. He’s since taken on a punditry role, become an ambassador for Athletic Bilbao and has also invested in Danish club Aalborg BK as part of his company Sports Strategy Excellence 22.
But his legacy stretches further than his record on the field. On Jan. 8, 2014, he became the highest-profile male footballer at the time to come out as gay. Even in retirement, Hitzlsperger is one of the most influential figures in football, and he spoke with ESPN’s Martin Ainstein about his decision to come out for the series The Bicycle Diaries, which returns for its third season in August on the ESPNFC YouTube channel.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
– Read on ESPN+: What we can learn from Gerrard, Lampard failures
He recalls the fear he felt at the time of what the dressing room would think, but also the strength of will knowing that if he spoke openly about his sexuality then others might feel comfortable to do the same. He also talks about the inspirational stories of fellow gay athletes Josh Cavallo and Jake Daniels, but also the work still needed to make the sport a more inclusive place and the support offered to LGBTQIA+ athletes.
“The main challenge is just to continue speaking up, talking about it, talking about the importance of the game,” he said. “That includes everybody. Make sure when discrimination happens that you’re clear it’s unacceptable, that clubs, federations say there is a no tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination.”
(Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
ESPN: In 2014, Thomas, you were the first men’s player to come out as gay. Take us through that process. How was it for you?
Hitzlsperger: For long parts of my career, it was not a problem. I lived my dream. I played football and I was focused on being a professional football player. But towards the end of my career, it was clear to me that I’m gay, and I’ve got to face it: I can’t hide. I don’t want to hide all the time and then ask myself a lot of questions.
Will I speak to the team, the manager and go public, or just keep quiet? And so it took me a couple of years to speak to my family first, then my friends and then be sure I’m supported really well and then go public. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen while I was still playing at Wolfsburg at the time or Everton after that, because I wasn’t ready. I wanted to come out while I was still playing, but I had to understand I wasn’t ready enough to take on the attention and the pressure that would come with it.
ESPN: What were some of the questions in your mind before making that decision?
Hitzlsperger: Well … one question was, is it really necessary? Like, why do I need to tell the public about my private life? Then the answer was more, I’m doing it less for myself, I’m doing more for others. Because I’m in the public eye, I can be a role model for others. And also: what would change in the dressing room? What if some of my teammates are uncomfortable with the fact that they have a gay teammate?
I wasn’t really concerned about media or fans reactions because as a football player, you’re used to criticism, you’re used to abuse — it’s sad, but that’s part of the game and you have to come to terms with it. But being abused because your sexual orientation is a different matter. So those were the kind of questions that were going from my head.
ESPN: How did you feel right after your announcement?
Hitzlsperger: It was great. I really had a good time because I’d say 95 percent of the actions were positive. Almost all around the world, people were saying “it’s great what you did,” or “finally, somebody spoke up.” And even though I wasn’t the first one in the football world, but one of the first, and people said that it’s great that somebody takes the courage and talk about it. For me, it was also important to add something to conversation. In the past, I heard players just, oh, no, if there’s a gay player, they shouldn’t come out, it’s too difficult for them. So I wanted to add something to the debate that would move us forward and not always give the same answers that everybody else gave.
ESPN: You came out nine years ago. Do you think there have been major changes since 2014?
Hitzlsperger: Yes, I do believe so. I know people try to correct me and say “well, nobody else has come out since, or not a high-profile player in the game,” and I say it’s not correct. We know other players now like Josh Cavallo and Jake Daniels, but also society has changed. I see there’s a better understanding within football clubs that being gay is accepted. You have more gay people working in clubs — not players, but working for the clubs. You see a lot of symbols and rainbow flags at clubs: they’re not shy anymore in showing that and being open about pro, diversity.
I see a lot of change and some good developments, but of course we’ve yet to see a star player come out. The main challenge is just to continue speaking up, talking about it, talking about the importance of acceptance in the game, and that includes everybody. Make sure when discrimination happens, you’re clear that it’s unacceptable, that clubs and federations say there is a no tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination.
ESPN: Thomas, I agree with you that there’s a lot of improvement in other sports, but men’s soccer is a place where you don’t see many changes in terms of inclusion and diversity. And when it comes to LGBTQIA+ acceptance in comparison to other sports or in women’s soccer, there’s a huge difference. Why is that?
Hitzlsperger: First of all, we should be pleased that it’s not an issue in female football. That’s not a problem they have. They have other issues, but that’s clearly not one, and maybe it’s unfair to draw that comparison. But in men’s football, there is a lot of attention and a lot of money involved, and I think it brings out the worst in people at times.
With being gay, you can choose whether you tell people or you don’t. If you’re Black, you can’t choose whether you show people or not. And that’s why being gay sometimes is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. Because if you choose to hide your sexuality, you internalize everything, and that causes stress. If you don’t, then you expose yourself and you face similar or the same discrimination as other minorities. And that’s why it’s complicated. It really is.
I’ve benefited from being openly gay. A lot of people came into my life, great people that otherwise wouldn’t have come into my life. And I still say look, I know it’s a big step, but once you’ve done it, for most people, it clearly improves your life.
ESPN: Talking about Josh Cavallo, you’re saying that every action of the day was an act because he had to pretend, hide and behave in a way that didn’t feel real, I imagine. How painful can that be?
Hitzlsperger: Absolutely. I’d say for most parts of my career, I didn’t have big problems because football was everything in my life. I’ve done everything as a kid to become a professional football player. Once I’ve achieved that, I played in the Premier League and Bundesliga and everything, that was all I wanted. It was only when I got older and it was clear to me, look, there is no hiding, there is no excuse. You’re gay, you got to face it. That’s when it became complicated.
So the last two or three years in my career, that’s when I thought, look, I prefer to talk openly to my teammates, but I feel uncomfortable. What am I going to do? And then the whole process starts in your head. And, yeah, there have been some bad days, that’s for sure, until the day I said, look, it’s got to be said publicly and before that, which is even more important, to come out to your friends and family, and once they make it clear everything’s fine, your life is much better.
ESPN: How do you improve equality and inclusion in football? Where are the next challenges of this fight?
Hitzlsperger: Well first of all, don’t call it a fight. I don’t want to call it a fight. How do you call it to just be clear of what we want to achieve and what football is for. It’s a beautiful game, but let’s not kid ourselves.
People who say there shouldn’t be politics in football just don’t see the reality. There has always been politics in football. I mean, just look at the vast amount of politicians that go to football matches. That in itself just shows how political it is. And I don’t see why some people in the game can use football as a platform to spread their messages while others aren’t allowed to. That’s why it remains complicated.
Then I say to myself OK, I will continue to do what I’m doing. I say I love football, but I will also say it is there for everybody. Nobody should be excluded. And if people don’t see that way, they will have an argument with me. So it’s more like going back to myself and trying to be a good role model, trying to stand up for the good cause and just keep doing it.
If people don’t like it, then they don’t like it. But I will not step back from saying football is a game for everybody, and nobody should be excluded.
ESPN: Are you working to create some kind of organization, project, gather people around these challenges that we need to face?
Hitzlsperger: Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been thinking about it. Before the World Cup, I went to Nepal to see families of migrant workers, and of course, people donated money. And we tried to help a widow of somebody who died and their children to pay the tuition, school tuition. So that was good. I’m very happy with this, but it’s not on a larger scale because in the end, as you just said, I’m still actively involved in football. I love the game. I watch games. I want to be a part of it. So there isn’t the capacity to just focus on charity work. So I do both. And me as a person, when you ask me, I give you answers, but if you don’t ask me, I focus on watching a football match and doing the best that I can to be successful in the game.
ESPN: So let’s talk about what we could change. We were talking about what to do, what needs to be changed in the football world in terms of inclusion and diversity.
Hitzlsperger: Well, I start with the clubs and at that level, every single club has the responsibility to take care of the people in the club, in the city they are at. I’ve experienced that to a great deal in England and Germany, which was phenomenal, because clubs understand they’re there for to bring people together. And because professional football is so huge, there’s so much money involved.
Clubs have the resources to support the people in the area. And I think that’s very good to start little like in your own community and help people that are on as well office as those who play the game.
ESPN: One thing that is missing right now is a big football celebrity, who’s still playing, deciding to speak out, either making a statement or coming out. It has happened in the female football. Do you imagine this happening in the men’s game?
Hitzlsperger: Well, at the moment I think it’s possible, of course. And I spoke to Jake Daniels. He’s a very young football player in England in the lower leagues, so he’s proven that even at the beginning of your career, he can do it. I see little steps forward, but it’s disrespectful to call it a little step because his story is powerful. He’s only just started his career and he said, look, this is who I am and let’s see what happens. And that’s what I see as an improvement. You see it in other sports, like in the NFL, we have an example.
We are progressing, maybe at a slow pace, but we are progressing; we just need to keep doing it.
ESPN: So talking about the football structure and the industry, how would you change things for the better?
Hitzlsperger: Well, change is happening all the time and I wouldn’t be so negative and say a lot needs to change. There are so many good examples. When I came out nearly 10 years ago, there was so much positive reaction. So, look, there are positive elements and we must not always pick out the negatives there are out there.
There is discrimination. But let’s focus more on the positive aspects: the applause you get from the fans, from the media. And that’s what I want to do in the future as well. Speak more about how positive these things are and the positive examples that are in the football world rather than focus on the negatives.