Former Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger has announced he is gay, saying “I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am”.

The 31-year-old German, who won 52 caps for his country, made the announcement in Germany’s Die Zeit. newspaper on Wednesday.

He said: “I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards.”

“I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am,” he added.

Hitzlsperger also admitted that it has not always been easy living with some of the comments made on the subject, he said: “Just picture 20 men sat around a table together drinking.

“You’ve just got to let the majority be, just as long as the jokes are halfway funny and the talk about homosexuality doesn’t get too insulting. In England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not taken seriously as an issue, at least not in the dressing room.”

Hitzlsperger retired from the sport in September 2013 at the age of 31 after a series of injury problems.

He joined Aston Villa as a teenager in 2000 from Bayern Munich and went on to play for Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham and Wolfsburg, with a short stint at Everton before the end of his career.

Hitzlsperger also enjoyed a successful international career, making his first senior international bow in 2004.

He represented Germany at the 2006 World Cup – though he only played 11 minutes of that competition – and the 2008 European Championship, where he started in the quarter-final, semi-final and final.

Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have congratulated the star for coming out.

Figures in the world of football and politics, including Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker and Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton have praised Hitzlsperger for his openness.

High-profile athletes from other sports have openly discussed their sexuality in recent years, with Olympic diver Tom Daley revealing in December he was in a relationship with a man.

But Hitzlsperger is only the fourth footballer to do so publicly.

There are currently no known openly gay footballers in the English and Scottish professional leagues.

Former Leeds and US winger Robbie Rogers came out as gay and quit English football in February 2013.

He later reversed his decision to quit the game and signed for LA Galaxy – but as of yet Rogers has no plans to return to the English league.

Before Rogers’ revelation, only two footballers had publicly said they were gay.

Justin Fashanu was the first professional footballer in Britain to come out, in 1990, before he took his own life eight years later, aged 37.

Swedish lower league player Anton Hysen – son of former Liverpool defender Glenn Hysen – came out in an interview with a Swedish football magazine in 2011.