Krakow (Poland): Italy striker Antonio Cassano has sparked furious reaction from a gay rights group after using a derogatory word to describe homosexuals and saying he hopes there aren't any in the national team.

During a raucous press conference on Tuesday the jovial forward was asked a question about television personality Cecchi Paone's claim there are two homosexuals and two metrosexuals in the Italy squad.

Cassano's reply was in the spirit of the often macho environment of sport and sports reporting and caused great laughter among the Italian press corps.

But his use of the word "frocho" is highly controversial as it's an insult akin to "queer" or "poof".

"What's a metrosexual?" he asked the questioner before adding: "If they're queer, that's their problem. I hope there aren't any queers in the national team.

"But if they're queer, it's their business. Are there any? I don't know."

Cassano is well known for his controversial behaviour and comments and there is even a slang phrase based on his name that is in common usage in Italy which means to do something stupid: a cassanata.

Although assembled journalists found his comments highly amusing, the Gay Centre in Italy has reacted with outrage.

"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.

"Cassano has shown that he has no respect, not only from a sporting perspective but from a human one, towards the many who follow him and consider him a great player.

"He would deserve at least a yellow card if not an expulsion from the European Championships. It is a relief at least that the coach Cesare Prandelli thinks differently."

"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," Marrazzo said.

In fairness to Cassano he is a known joker and both took the question in good humour and answered it equally flippantly.

He even turned to the translator and said: "You're not going to translate that to the Polish press, are you?" But homosexuality in sport in general and in particular in football is a sensitive topic.

There are no high profile openly gay footballers in the major European leagues and many gay groups have called for someone to take a stand and become the first.

Former Nottingham Forest forward Justin Fashanu is the only English footballer to have come out later in his career, although it was widely known even when he was a young player.

However, he committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 37 after he was questioned by police in the United States after a 17-year-old boy accused him of sexual assault.

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 right at the end of his career but said he hadn't done it earlier because he didn't want to be known for his sexuality rather than his sporting prowess.

"I don't want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player, first and foremost I am a man," he told the Daily Mail when coming out in December 2009.

By that point his eight-year Wales career had already ended and he only played on for a couple more seasons, including a switch to rugby league.

Homosexuality in football is an issue that comes up often in Italy.

Earlier this year Italy striker Antonio Di Natale said he thought it would be very difficult for a player to be openly gay while former Italy midfielder Gennaro Gattuso insisted a couple of years ago he'd never come across a homosexual in football.

(Agencies)

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