Brescia striker Mario Balotelli threatened to leave the pitch after he was racially abused by opposition Verona fans in the latest episode of racism to afflict Italy’s top football division.
Balotelli – born in Italy to Ghanaian parents – picked up the ball in the second half near the corner flag and kicked it towards the fans that were abusing him with monkey chants during his team’s 2-1 away loss in Serie A on Sunday.
Balotelli seemed set to quit the encounter but was stopped by teammates and Verona players, who consoled the 29-year-old.
The game did continue and Balotelli scored a stunning goal in the 85th minute before taking to Instagram to thank his “colleagues on and off the pitch” while also condemning the offenders.
“Thanks to all the colleagues on the pitch and outside of it for the solidarity shown towards me and all the messages received from you fans. You have proven to be real men, unlike those who deny the facts,” he said.
“The ‘people’ of this curva who made the monkey chants. Shame on you, shame on you, shame on you. Shame on you, In front of your children, wives, relatives, parents, friends and acquaintances.”
The ‘curva’ often alludes to the part of the stadium where a club’s hard core spectators or ‘ultras’ sit.
Verona says nothing happened
When the sometimes controversial Italian international referred to people denying the facts, he might have been thinking of Verona manager Ivan Juric and club president Maurizio Setti. They both insisted nothing happened.
“Balotelli’s reaction? I’m not afraid to say it: Today there was nothing,” said Juric. “Lots of whistling and teasing against a great player, but there was nothing else. I have also taken so many insults over the years, I know what it means, but today there has been nothing.
“On the reason of the reaction you have to ask him. When there are racist choirs, I will have no problem saying this because they suck even if they come from my fans, but today I haven’t heard a single one. We don’t create a case where there isn’t, it would be a lie!”
However, a report in Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport said a monitor from Italy’s football federation was at the game and heard the abuse coming from around 15 fans.
Italy’s news agency, ANSA, quoted one ‘ultra’ as saying Balotelli “is Italian because he has Italian citizenship but he will never be completely Italian.”
Verona club president Setti said in a statement that he apologized to Balotelli “in case someone might have said something to him.
“I can confirm that we didn’t hear anything,” he said. “I arrived in Verona eight years ago and I could immediately see how the Verona fans are ironic, yes, but absolutely not racists,
“When there are episodes of racism we are the first to condemn them, we have always done it, but it’s wrong to generalize it, speaking of racist chants and fans, if out of 20,000 people a few might have said something.
“Those two or three people, if there are, we are ready to take them and punish them because I strongly condemn such incidents.
“But talking of Verona if we were stuck 30 years ago is wrong: We’re a club and fans that has only sport in its DNA. There are many black guys who wear yellow-blue from Youth to the First Team, racism is a discourse that for us does not exist and Verona is not the right place for such generalizations.”
Brescia backs Balotelli
But Brescia backed Balotelli, who has also played for clubs Manchester City, Liverpool, Milan and Inter, and took issue with Verona’s stance of attempting to “deny or minimize the gravity of the incident.
“What happened in the affected area of the pitch was not only heard by Brescia’s players, but also by the opponents, and presumable by the referee, considering televised images that show teammates, opponents, and referees repeatedly trying to convince Balotelli not to leave the pitch.”
A stadium announcement was made saying both teams would leave the field if the abuse didn’t stop as the match was halted for a few minutes.
“Brescia football club expresses all its indignation to the fact that, even today, episodes of this kind and of such gravity can occur: this afternoon it happened to one of our players but it could have happened to anyone else, of any team, and the sentence should be as equally firm and determined,” added the Brescia statement.
Only a day earlier, a game between Roma and Napoli was briefly suspended after Napoli’s highly rated Senegalese defender, Kalidou Koulibaly, was racially abused by a section of Roma fans in the Italian capital.
Like Balotelli, it wasn’t the first time it happened to him in Italy.
In another recent incident, Inter’s black striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to monkey chants as he took a penalty at Cagliari in September. The club escaped punishment for the racist abuse for essentially, a lack of evidence.
The Italian football federation didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment about the weekend’s events. European governing body UEFA, however, said in an email sent to CNN that the “fight to eliminate racism, discrimination and intolerance from football is a major priority” but added it wasn’t within its jurisdiction to deal with incidents in Serie A.
“UEFA can only open disciplinary proceedings for matches which take place within its competitions. For cases of possible discrimination which occur in domestic matches, the relevant national association is the competent body.”
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Brescia, meanwhile, sacked manager Eugenio Corini after the loss to Verona due to a string of poor results. Brescia sits third last in Serie A.