di Marcello Mento
(By Paul Virgo) Rome, June 5 - An Italian court on Wednesday handed prison sentences of 40 days to two months to six soccer fans who racially abused several black AC Milan players in a friendly match in January. The court in the northern town of Busto Arsizio, where the incident took place, found the fans of fourth-tier side Pro Patria guilty of insulting chants "aggravated by racist motives". The sentence was less severe than the terms requested by the prosecutor, who wanted five of the fans given six months in jail and one four months because he helped authorities. The incident hit international headlines as Milan's Ghanaian midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng led his side in walking off the field in protest and the match was abandoned. The Ghanaian was widely praised for standing up to the bigots and was subsequently invited to speak at a forum organized in Geneva by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. Any hopes that the incident would turn out to be a watershed for Italian football, which has been engaged in a long battle against racism in the stands, were quickly dashed. Last month a Serie A match between AC Milan and AS Roma was briefly suspended after some Roma fans directed racist chants at Boateng and Milan's Italy forward Mario Balotelli. There were a number of other incidents of racism at the end of last season. After fining clubs for racism by fans proved ineffective, this week the Italian Soccer Federation (FIGC) approved stiffer penalties for racism following new rules from European football's governing body UEFA. Clubs whose fans are guilty of racist abuse will now have sections of their home ground closed for a subsequent game. If the abuse is repeated, the club will have to play a home game behind closed doors. If it still continues the authorities will be able to give more stadium bans, award victory in a game to the opposition, deduct points in the league standings and even exclude a team from the championship. Balotelli has frequently been a victim of racism abuse and has threatened to walk off the field the next time it happens, although UEFA President Michel Platini and the head of Italy's referees have said it is not up to the individual player to decide when to take action. Racism has been a problem in Italian soccer at least since the 1980s, when Milan's Dutch star Ruud Gullit spoke out against it. Former Messina defender Marco Zoro of the Ivory Coast threatened to halt a Serie A game in November 2005 after suffering racial abuse from visiting Inter supporters. A decade earlier, Dutchman Aron Winter, a native of Suriname, was subject to attacks at Lazio involving cries of "Niggers and Jews Out". Anti-Semitism has also been a recurring problem in the top flight. In 1989 Israel striker Ronnie Rosenthal was unable to play even one game for Udinese because of massive pressure from neo-Fascist circles. Supporters of Lazio, who include a neo-Fascist hard core, and AS Roma were linked to a brutal assault on Tottenham supporters, a London club with a Jewish heritage, in a Rome pub in November. The Busto Arsizio court, meanwhile, fined Milan's Sulley Muntari, another Ghanaian midfielder, 500 euros for failing to turn up to give evidence at the trial.