Antonio Cassano, a forward for Italy's national soccer team, has apologized for previous statements he made in which he referred to homosexuals as "queers," which many gay rights activists deemed offensive.
"I sincerely regret that my statements have sparked controversy and protest from gay rights groups," Cassano, 42, said in a statement posted on the Italian Football Federation's official website, as reported by the Daily Mail.
"Homophobia is a sentiment that is not mine. I did not want to offend anyone and I can not question the sexual freedom of other people."
He concluded, "I only said that it is a problem that does not concern me and it is not for me to pass judgment on the choices of others, who are all respected."
Cassano struck the ire of fans and gay rights groups at a press conference Monday, when he was asked to comment on whether he thought there were any homosexual players on Italy's 2012 national team.
The question was in response to a comment made by Italian television personality Cecchi Paone, who has previously suggested there are two homosexuals and two metrosexuals on Italy's team.
Like us on Facebook
"'The [national] coach had warned me that you would ask me this question," Cassano told reporters. "If I say what I think....I hope there are none. But if there are queers here, that's their business."
Gay rights groups were quick to respond to the soccer forward's comment.
"Unifying sport and homophobia gives a dangerous message, especially to the young," Fabrizio Marrazzo, a spokesman for the Gay Center in Italy, told NDTV Sports.
"Cassano says 'cassanate' [Italian word meaning 'stupid things'] about gays showing his arrogance and irresponsibility," he said. "In any case it is in fact football which will be the theme of our next Gay Help Line, the phone line which gives help against homophobia."
Although gay rights groups took offense to Cassano's comments, many others in the soccer community were not surprised, as he is known to be a controversial player with an unorthodox, and often offensive, sense of humor.
According to NDTV Sports, there are no high-profile players in Europe's major football league teams who are openly gay.
Italy is currently making advances to the Euro 2012 Cup's quarterfinals, hoping to beat Croatia on Thursday, June 14.