Hitzlsperger, 31, who was capped 52 times for Germany and played at the 2006 World Cup, told German newspaper Die Zeit he was "not ashamed" about being gay and has decided to talk about his sexuality "to further the debate about homosexuality among sports professionals".

Hitzlsperger, who also played for West Ham and Wolfsburg during his career before he retired last September, said his sexuality "only dawned on" him in recent years after a "long and difficult process" until he discovered he preferred living with a man.

"In England, Italy and Germany being a homosexual is no big thing, at least not in the dressing room," he said.

"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 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'".

The midfielder is the first footballer to play in the premier league to publicly come out as gay. In February, former Leeds United and United States footballer Robbie Rogers said he was gay and decided to retire from the game soon after.

Swedish lower league footballer Anton Hysen, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysen, also revealed he was gay during an interview with a Swedish magazine in 2011.

After Hitzlsperger's announcement, Hysen wrote on Twitter: "Just want to take a moment & say GOOD JOB Thomas Hitzlsperger!! very proud over what you've done. Extremely good for football!"

Justin Fashanu was the first British footballer to announce his sexuality in 1990, He committed suicide eight years later aged 37.

In December, Olympic diver Tom Daley publicly announced he was in a relationship with a man.

Former Wales rugby international Gareth Thomas also came out in 2009 later became a supporter for the charity ChildLine.

Hitzlsperger made over 250 appearances during his career, scoring 31 goals.