Thomas Hitzlsperger came out yesterday.

Moments later others emerged to declare their support. The former midfielder earned 52 caps for Germany and spent time playing for Aston Villa, VfB Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham United, VfL Wolfsburg and Everton, but it is the announcement that he is gay which has made his name in football. He was considered a brave player on the pitch and has found further courage since retiring from the game in September.

Football continues to stare at its feet as others acknowledge that players only tend to feel confident enough to come out when they are no longer directly involved in the sport. When Robbie Rogers, a former United States internationalist, made the announcement that he was gay, the winger ended with the statement that he was also retired, effective immediately. A return to the pitch has come at the Los Angeles Galaxy in the US, an environment which is not likely to be quite as abrasive to his lifestyle choice.

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Hitzlsperger is similarly cushioned from potential ridicule, insulated by sentiments of support from Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, whose spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, praised the 31-year-old for going public. The country's former foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle - who is openly gay - also stated that 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," said Hitzlsperger, who came out in an interview with newspaper Die Zeit. "In England, Germany and Italy, homosexuality is not an issue that is discussed in earnest, not in the dressing room at any rate."

There is an assumption that players who come out will encounter a negative reaction from coaches, team-mates and supporters and so are convinced to keep their sexuality secret. "It's good that he's spoken about something which is important to him," said Seibert yesterday. "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. I believe both are the case with Mr Hitzlsperger."

It might be heartening to the former West Ham player that such a sentiment has also been echoed in German football, with Theo Zwanziger, former head of the German Football Federation, also electing to praise 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. 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."

That they have been in the past has become a source of painful embarrassment for the sport. It has touched Scottish football, albeit lightly, since Justin Fashanu - the former Hearts and Airdrieonians striker - who came out in a tabloid newspaper in 1990 and committed suicide eight years later. It is an episode which distorts efforts to improve attitudes in the game, although not everyone has been supportive of Hitzlsperger.

Alex, the former Chelsea defender, is thought to have reacted negatively towards homosexuality in a documentary to be broadcast on French television. According to Le Parisien, Brazilian Alex states: "God wouldn't have created Adam and Eve but Adam and Yves."

It was not a clever remark and one which would likely provoke those in whom Hitzlsperger chose to confide. Oliver Bierhoff, now general manager of the Germany national team, is one such individual and he has promised that German football will stand beside his former international team-mate to ensure he is supported.

"For him now to go public deserves recognition and respect," he said. "I welcome this step and we will give him all the support he needs to be able to follow his courageous path."

Dr Reinhard Rauball, the German Football League president, hopes other gay players might be willing to also confide in team-mates. "The reaction of the fans to a current professional coming out would be hard to calculate," he said. "I would recommend anybody affected as a first step to confide in their club management, such as the board and coach and team colleagues."