Soccer: Racism rears head before season start

Lazio stand shut after Super Cup monkey chants against Juve

Soccer: Racism rears head before season start

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, August 19 - Racism has reared its head in Italian soccer even before the start of the Serie A season this weekend - and despite vows to stamp it out after a string of high-profile incidents last year. Sections of the Lazio following directed monkey chants at Juventus's black players during the Roman team's 4-0 loss to the Serie A champions in the Italian Super Cup at the Olympic Stadium Sunday night. Following last year's headline-grabbing cases including a walk-off by AC Milan in a friendly against a lower-tier team, some observers thought punishment might be harsher than new regulations mandate. Instead, Lazio was only ordered to close the section of its home ground to its hard-core 'ultra' fans - who have one of Italian soccer's darkest reputations for racism - for just one match, their Serie A debut against Udinese Sunday. Although it was the mandatory penalty available to the Italian Soccer Federation's disciplinary judge, some thought the authorities could have come down harder on Lazio, especially given the showcase nature of Italian soccer's seasonal curtain-raiser. Paul Pogba, the Juve midfielder who was the first target of abuse after he opened the scoring, indicated that more might have been done. Hinting that he expected stiffer action to be taken, Pogba voiced his surprise and indignation that the Lazio fans didn't think twice about racially abusing him and his teammates even though there were blacks playing for Lazio. "They're ignorant," Pogba told Agence-France Presse. "I was alone against 30,000. Those people behave like that even though they have black players in their team. "It's a complete lack of respect towards players wearing the shirt they're rooting for, too. "It's an unpleasant situation but I keep playing and stay focused on my job," Pogba said. Juve's Angelo Ogbonna, an Italy defender of Nigerian descent, and Ghana midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah were the other Juve players targeted. Lazio's team included Angolan-born Belgian Under-21 international Luis Pedro Cavanda and Nigeria's Ogenyi Eddy Onazi. The stand closure contrasted sharply with action in an Italian criminal court five months after the Milan walk-off against fourth-tier Pro Patria in January. In June, judges handed down prison sentences of 40 days to two months for six Pro Patria fans. The court in the northern town of Busto Arsizio, where the incident took place, found the fans guilty of insulting chants "aggravated by racist motives". The prosecutor had wanted even longer terms, asking for five of the fans to be 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. In May 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, in June 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 - the penalty applied in Lazio's case. 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. There was also a much-publicised case at the end of last season, also involving Milan, which turned out not to have been racist in nature. Guinean Kevin Constant walked off in rage after kicking the ball into the stands during a 45-minute match against promoted Sassuolo. A substitute took Constant's place and an announcement was made warning play would be stopped if the abuse continued. But the police report said individual fans directed "sporadic offensive phases" at the player, including a call for him to have plastic surgery on his nose, but there was no evidence these were on a racist nature. It said Constant was booed by the crowd, but so were several other white Milan players. After the match Milan said it would not accept racist abuse against its players, but also said Constant should not have left the field.

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