03.11.2019 21:12 h

Racism storm sweeps Italy again

Italian football was again reeling from racist abuse on Sunday after Mario Balotelli threatened to leave the pitch following monkey chants from Hellas Verona fans, the latest in a series of ugly incidents that have blighted the early weeks of the Serie A season.

Brescia striker Balotelli, 29, scored and hit the post in a 2-1 Serie A defeat at Verona that leaves his hometown side in the relegation zone, but his performance was overshadowed by his fury at Verona's notorious supporters, who have a long track record of far-right politics and open racism.

Verona coach Ivan Juric had earlier told Sky Sport that he heard "no racists chants, nothing at all" after a win that lifts his side to ninth, adding that "to say otherwise is a lie".

"He's a fantastic player but where were the racist chants?" Juric asked.

Verona's president Maurizio Setti then said that his club's supporters were "light-hearted, not racist" and were a crowd with "real sport in its DNA".

"We are the first to condemn racism but it is wrong to generalise... Maybe two or three people among 20,000 fans might have said something," he said to Sky.

However a video published on Twitter by a Verona fan showed the incident in detail, with a number of supporters clearly directing monkey chants at Balotelli before the Italy international booted the ball at them in the stands.

With his Brescia side a goal down to Eddie Salcedo's powerful second-half header Balotelli, who was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents and has been a frequent target for racist chants in Italy, charged towards the Verona fans.

Pointing towards his ears, the former AC Milan and Manchester City striker then tried to leave the pitch, only to be stopped by his teammates and Verona players.

The match was suspended for a few minutes before a message was read out by the stadium loudspeaker threatening that both teams would leave the field if there was a repeat of any abuse, a message that was whistled loudly by a large number of the home fans.

Balotelli's agent Mino Raiola told AFP he was backing his player.

"We are with Mario and we are against all forms of racism. Racists are just ignorant," Raiola said.

The Gazzetta Dello Sport newspaper reported Balotelli left the Stadio Bentegodi without comment but Italian Football Federation officials had also heard the abuse.

Brescia coach Eugenio Corini told reporters afterwards Balotelli "heard something" from the stands before he reacted.

A number of black players have been racially abused by supporters in Italy in the opening weeks of the season, with Milan midfielder Franck Kessie targeted by Verona fans in September and Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku abused at Cagliari, also serial offenders.

Balotelli has a particularly hostile relationship with Verona fans, who six years ago targeted him with ironic cheers after then-mayor of the city Flavio Tosi called him a "troublemaker" who brought racist abuse on himself.

Elsewhere surprise package Cagliari moved up to fifth after winning 2-0 at Atalanta, who are the league's leading scorers but drew a blank after the sending off of playmaker Josip Ilicic.

The Sardinian side are now level with fourth-placed Atalanta on 21 points after Mario Pasalic's first half own goal and a Christian Oliva strike in the 58th minute.

Both sides are a point behind Roma, who stayed third following their 2-1 win over Napoli on Saturday which extends their unbeaten run in the league to six games despite a weeks-long injury crisis.

Paulo Fonseca's team remain seven points behind league leaders Juventus, who stay top thanks to Matthijs de Ligt's derby winner in their 1-0 triumph at Torino on Saturday.

The Dutch international's first Juve goal since arriving from Ajax in the summer kept Inter Milan at bay by a single point despite Romelu Lukaku's brace sealing a late 2-1 win at Bologna and taking the Belgian's Serie A tally to nine in 11 games.