(CNN) -- His nickname on the football field was "Der Hammer" -- apt for a man who is keen to knock down the barriers faced by gay people in sport.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, a former Germany international, revealed Wednesday that he is gay, becoming the most high-profile soccer star to do so to date.
The 31-year-old, who retired from the game in September, told German newspaper Die Zeit that he wants to further the debate about homosexuality in sports, which has for long been a taboo.
"I'm coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards," he said in an extract prior to the publication of a full interview on Thursday.
"It's been a long and difficult process. Only in the last few years have I realized that I preferred living together with a man."
Support was immediately forthcoming from Hitzlsperger's former Germany teammate Lukas Podolski, who plays for English Premier League club Arsenal. He said it was "a brave and right decision."
German national team coach Joachim Low said in a statement on the German Football Association's website: "Thomas has made this personal decision for himself, and should be treated with respect from all sides."
That Hitzlsperger's legacy may come to be dominated by his decision to reveal his sexuality shows how divisive the subject remains in football.
On the same day, French newspaper Le Parisien reported a documentary to be shown on Canal+ featured Paris-Saint Germain defender Alex expressing his faith-based disapproval of homosexuality.
The Brazilian international, who has also played for English Premier League Chelsea, is quoted as saying: "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves."
In February last year former United States international Robbie Rogers revealed he was gay on the day he announced his retirement from the game. He subsequently signed a contract with Major League Soccer club Los Angeles Galaxy in May.
Swedish footballer Anton Hysen, son of former Liverpool defender Glenn Hysen, came out in 2011 and told CNN last year he had spoken to other gay players who were too scared to do the same.
Hitzlsperger said while homosexuality was generally accepted behind the scenes at clubs he played for, there were still uncomfortable moments.
"In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room," he told Die Zeit.
"I was never ashamed of being who I am but it was not always easy to sit on a table with 20 young men and listen to jokes about gays.
"You let them get on with it as long as the jokes are somewhat funny and not too insulting. Being gay is a topic that is 'ignored' in football and not 'a serious topic in the changing room.'
"Fighting spirit, passion and winning mentality are intrinsically linked, that doesn't fit the cliché: 'Gays are soft.' "
Germany national team coach Joachim Löw also made a statement today, saying that "Thomas has made this personal decision for himself, and should be treated with respect from all sides".
Hitzlsperger began his 12-year career in football at Germany's leading team Bayern Munich, and won the Bundesliga title during a five-year stint with Stuttgart.
He spent four years at English Premier League club Aston Villa, where the club's fans bestowed his nickname "Der Hammer" due to his powerful shot.
Hitzlsperger also had spells with Everton and West Ham United in England, either side of a season back in Germany with Wolfsburg, and played a handful of games for Lazio in Italy.
He represented his country at the 2006 World Cup and played in final of the 2008 European Championships, earning a total of 52 caps over a six-year period.