Thomas Hitzlsperger believes clear improvements have been made with respect to diversity in football and hopes players from Europe's major leagues will soon feel comfortable coming out as gay.

Hitzlsperger – who earned 52 caps for Germany between 2004 and 2010 and helped Stuttgart win the Bundesliga in 2006-07 – came out in 2014, less than a year after his retirement. 

Having become the highest-profile player to come out, Hitzlsperger recognises the "courage" required for anyone to take such a decision.

However, citing evolving attitudes towards homosexuality in football and the impact of diversity campaigns, Hitzlsperger believes the sport is now more welcoming.

Speaking to Stats Perform at the Football Business Awards, Hitzlsperger said: "What I'm seeing is a lot of improvement in what clubs are doing to promote diversity. We see a lot of symbolism, symbols, and support. 

"But it's down to the player or the players to make that decision. It takes courage, it takes a good network of family and friends to finally go that way.

"I can't predict how long it's going to take, but I'm glad to see that among fans and clubs in the media and in general, there's a positive attitude towards it. 

"If we always pick out the people who discriminate on this, then we can always argue, but in general, I think there has been an improvement. 

"I can only hope that we see a player or some players [come out] one day because that would make another big change."

Hitzlsperger enjoyed three spells in the Premier League during his playing career, representing Aston Villa, Everton and West Ham.

The Hammers are gearing up to face Fiorentina in next month's Europa Conference League final, and Hitzlsperger is optimistic regarding their chances of continental glory.

"It's massive," he said. "Again, as a football fan, you're going into a European competition. That in itself is a great achievement. 

"But then ending up in the final means so much to the fans, the journeys across Europe, so I can only hope that they do well, win the final and give the fans something to cheer about because I remember being there. 

"Sometimes when you get relegated, I know how depressing it is for everybody involved, but the club has recovered and hopefully in the future they will also do well in the Premier League."

Germany has given the go-ahead for transgender and non-binary footballers to decide for themselves whether to play for men's or women's teams.

The landmark move, announced on Thursday by the DFB, Germany's football federation, will come into effect from the start of the 2022-23 season.

It comes in the week that swimming's world governing body FINA said transgender women would not be allowed to compete in women's elite swimming events if they had previously experienced any physical aspects of male puberty.

FINA president Husain Al-Musallam said swimming was acting "to protect competitive fairness at our events", and World Athletics president Sebastian Coe offered supportive comments that appeared to point to his sport possibly soon following suit.

German football is taking a different view for now, with the decision hailed by Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Aston Villa, Stuttgart and Germany midfielder who is now a DFB diversity ambassador.

Hitzlsperger said: "Football stands for diversity, a value that the DFB also promotes. This new regulation on playing rights will provide an important foundation to allow players with diverse gender identities to play football."

The DFB said transgender, intersex and non-binary footballers "can decide for themselves in the future whether they should be granted the right to play for a women's or men's team".

Any player taking medication while undergoing gender reassignment would be able to continue to do so, without being at risk of failing a drug test.

A DFB statement added: "As long as the player's health is not affected by playing sports while taking medication, they can continue to participate in the sport. Under the new regulation, this would not be considered as doping."

The DFB said its decision was based on evidence stemming from research from the Berlin Football Association, which has operated a pilot scheme from 2019 allowing transgender, intersex and non-binary players to decide in what competition they should play.

The trial has "shown that this directive will not affect the integrity of the competition", the DFB said, and regional 'trustees' will be appointed to help players through the process of being granted playing eligibility.

Sabine Mammitzsch, the DFB's vice-president for women's and girls' football, said: "The national and regional associations and also those responsible at grassroots level have signalled for some time that there is uncertainty around how to treat trans, intersex and non-binary players in practice.

"They therefore welcome the introduction of a far-reaching, nationwide regulation on the playing rights of these groups."

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