As a combative midfielder with a thunderous shot that earned him the nickname ‘Der Hammer,’ Thomas Hitzlsperger was a very popular player with Premier League fans.

The former Germany international is still immensely admired in football, as much for the impactful manner in which he came out publicly as gay a decade ago as for his achievements on the pitch.

On Monday, the now 41-year-old marked that anniversary across his personal social media channels and pledged to continue raising awareness of the challenges that players like him still face today.

“It’s been 10 long and absolutely exciting years,” Hitzlsperger wrote on LinkedIn.

“The 8th of January was a particularly eventful day for me. I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew it was the right decision for me… for a life in more freedom and without pressure to have to hide a side of me.”

Hitzlsperger had hung up his boots just a few months before, having left Everton when his contract expired.

He chose German newspaper Die Zeit as the vehicle for his story, which made headlines around the world, including on Outsports.

He made his reputation at Aston Villa and went on to win 52 international caps for his country, including being part of the squads that finished third in the 2006 FIFA World Cup on home soil and second in the European Championship two years later.

Thomas Hitzlsperger celebrates scoring for Germany in Euro 2008 qualifying — he was on target six times in his senior international career.

In between those tournaments, he also helped VfB Stuttgart claim only the fifth Bundesliga title in the club’s history. He also had short spells at Lazio, West Ham and Wolfsburg.

While the world’s first out gay male professional footballer Justin Fashanu also played at the top level in England, those appearances all came before the Premier League era.

In fact, Hitzlsperger is so far the only man to have ever played in the Premier League — the world’s most-watched sports league — to come out publicly as gay or bi.

“I started a discussion about homosexuality in professional sports, because it had been taboo in my view until then,” he added on LinkedIn.

“The past ten years have been marked by positive experiences, successes and setbacks. However, I can say with full conviction that I would do it all again in exactly the same way.”

On Mar. 7, Hitzlsperger’s autobiography “Mutproben”, which translates as “Tests of Courage”, will be released in his homeland. The book is written with the help of journalist Holger Gertz.

In the decade since Hitzlsperger came out, the number of male professional footballers either active or retired to have done the same is barely into double figures.

Interestingly, the suggestion has been made recently that this could change dramatically in 2024. Another former German footballer, Marcus Urban, has claimed he knows of a group of gay players who are communicating with each other and believes they are prepared to come out en masse, possibly as soon as May.

Hitzlsperger gave his view on this to news channel NTV on Monday. “If everyone involved feels comfortable with it and not pressured, I think that’s wonderful.

“It would generate enormous attention and certainly encourage other people.”

In recent years, Hitzlsperger has been on the board at VfB Stuttgart, first as sporting director and then as CEO, a role he quit in 2022 to focus more on TV punditry and other projects. In the last few months, he has also become the co-owner of the famous restaurant L’Escargot in London’s Soho.

He spoke out about the abuse of migrant workers at the Qatar World Cup as well as the problematic rhetoric around the so-called “welcoming” of LGBTQ+ fans to a country where homosexuality is criminalized.

He also questioned the allyship of England’s Jordan Henderson as “not genuine” after the former Liverpool captain tried to defend his lucrative switch to Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, he told Tageschau the fear that gay male footballers experience is “anchored in society” but that dwelling on it helps nobody.

“My aim has always been to emphasize the positive,” he added. “I spoke out, spoke to my family, to my friends: the reactions were positive.

“Time has changed, there is every reason to dare to do just that.”

The caption on Hitzlsperger’s ‘then and now’ Instagram post summed up his feelings. “Coming out publicly on Jan 8th 2014 gave my life a new direction. The best direction I could‘ve possibly imagined.”

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