(CNN) -- Italy striker Antonio Cassano has apologised for apparent homophobic comments he made in a Euro 2012 press conference.
The outspoken striker's comments came after he was asked about an Italian TV personality's claim that there are two gay players in the current Italy squad.
Cassano is reported to have responded: "If they're queer, that's their problem. I hope there aren't any queers in the national team."
The Milan striker's comments were largely laughed off at the time, but sparked outrage among gay rights groups.
Those reactions prompted an apology on Tuesday, with Cassano issuing a statement which read: "I'm sincerely sorry that what I said has sparked controversy and protests from gay associations.
"Homophobia is not a sentiment I feel. I didn't want to offend anyone and I certainly didn't want to call into question anyone's freedom of sexuality.
"I only said it wasn't my problem and I wouldn't allow myself to judge others. Everyone deserves respect."
Campaign group the Gay Centre in Italy had hit out at Cassano's original comments, using an Italian slang phrase for doing something stupid that plays on Cassano's name.
"Cassano says 'cassanate' (stupid things) about gays, showing his arrogance and irresponsibility," said spokesman Fabrizio Marrazzo in a statement.
"Unifying sport and homophobia gives a dangerous message, especially to the young," he added.
Despite gay sportsmen making public their sexuality in other sports, there are no high-profile gay footballers in Europe's major leagues.
Gay rights groups have called for someone to step forward and make known their sexuality and last year Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer told Bunte magazine: "Those players who are homosexual should say so. That would take a load off their minds."
Former Nottingham Forest forward Justin Fashanu is the only English footballer to have come out, later in his career.
He killed himself in 1998, aged 37, after being questioned by police in the United States about an alleged sexual assault on a 17-year-old boy.
Another British athlete, former NBA star John Amaechi, came out but only after he had ended his basketball career.
Former Wales rugby union international Gareth Thomas came out at the end of his career but said he had not done so earlier as he did not want to be known for his sexuality rather than his sporting prowess.