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Italian players’ rep calls out establishment’s racism tolerance

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ROME (AP) It was the day after Christmas and the festive atmosphere was quickly ruined when a soccer fan died in clashes outside of the venerated San Siro stadium in Milan.

Inside the arena, the situation grew worse when Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who is black, was targeted with racist monkey noises by Inter Milan supporters for the full 90 minutes.

After Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti pleaded with the referee to no avail for the match to be suspended, Koulibaly sarcastically applauded the official and was sent off with his second yellow card.

Days later, an emergency summit of Italian soccer and government leaders called to address the problems of fan violence and racism resulted in little more than opposing opinions.

“The feeling I took home was that we don’t all view the problem in the same manner and we don’t all want to confront it the same way,” Damiano Tommasi, the president of the Italian players’ association, said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. “Not everyone was convinced that this is unacceptable.”

No surprise then that, nine months later, fan racism remains a serious problem for Serie A and there has been a complete lack of punishment after three cases of discriminatory chants during the opening five rounds of the Italian league.

Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku, AC Milan’s Franck Kessie, and Fiorentina’s Dalbert Henrique — who are all black — have been targeted by racist chants but no sanctions have been handed out by the Italian league, federation or police.

“There’s always someone who says, `Yes, but. Yes, but that’s not racism. Yes, but it’s only one person. Yes, but it’s not a racist insult. Yes, but we can’t prevent someone from saying these things inside a stadium. Too many `Yes, buts,'” Tommasi said. “That results in a level of tolerance that doesn’t come into line with other countries.”

With coaches like Ancelotti and Antonio Conte at Inter having recently returned home after experiences abroad, plus the arrival of more high-profile foreigners in the Italian league like Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus and Lukaku, who recently transferred from Manchester United, the racism in Serie A has taken on a new dimension.

“They notice the difference much more than other players and coaches. And they’re personalities who are known internationally. Their voices gain more attention,” Tommasi said.

As Conte said recently, “I’m back in Italy after three years and I’ve discovered that the situation has really worsened. In England whoever offends someone pays for it because they put them in jail right away and throw away the key. That’s why so many families go to the stadiums there.”

The racism isn’t just against black players. Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic was recently insulted as “a Gypsy.”

Then there are degrading territorial chants constantly aimed at Napoli in which supporters of other clubs associate Napoli with cholera or sing that the southern city should fall victim to an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

During Napoli’s opening match of the season at Fiorentina, Ancelotti uncharacteristically lost his cool at the final whistle and confronted opposing fans behind his bench.

“After 90 minutes of insults, I turned to the crowd and suggested that they just go home,” Ancelotti said. “It’s certainly not pleasant to hear non-stop insults.”

Fiorentina fans, meanwhile, have been known to celebrate the Heysel Stadium disaster, when 39 people – mostly Juventus fans – were killed in a stampede at the start of the 1985 European Cup final.

“Insults have become an accepted part of the fan culture,” Tommasi said.

An extra complication was revealed by a recent police crackdown on Juventus “ultra” fans linked to alleged infiltration by the Calabrian `Ndrangheta crime mob: Militant-like supporters allegedly blackmailed their own team by threatening racist chants which would result in a costly stadium closure if the club did not provide them with extra tickets for resale.

Solutions for fighting racism and other offensive behavior have been established in the English and French leagues, where high-tech cameras and listening devices inside stadiums can help authorities identify offenders, who then face harsh punishments.

Gerardo Mastrandrea, the Italian league judge charged with deciding disciplinary measures, has few tools to work with besides the official referees’ report from each match. If the referee does not report racist chants, Mastandrea can’t rely on fan videos circulating on social media to hand out punishment.

There was progress, however, when Atalanta’s 2-2 draw with Fiorentina last weekend was suspended briefly during the first half due to chants aimed at Dalbert, following FIFA’s “three-step process” for handling racism inside stadiums.

The FIFA process requires the referee to briefly pause a match at the first hint of discriminatory chants and request an announcement asking fans to stop. If the chanting persists, the referee can suspend the match and order the teams into the locker rooms until it stops. If that doesn’t work, the referee can stop the match definitively.

“The rules are there, they just need to be applied,” Tommasi said. “We could sit here and talk about solutions for months. But in terms of the regulations there are only a few moves to be made, we just need to have the courage, strength and – above all – the desire to say these people can’t be inside the stadiums.”

After last season’s racism summit, then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced that he opposes suspending matches because racist chants are too difficult to identify.

Salvini lost his office in a political gamble this month but remains popular for his hard-line stance against migrants.

“Unfortunately,” Tommasi said, “athletes and sports in general have little to learn from society in general these days in terms of integration and inclusion.”

Who can Premier League clubs draw in Europa League?

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Group winners Arsenal and Manchester United will avoid a loaded batch of seeded teams, while runners-up Wolves can draw a bevy of powerful teams in the Europa League Round of 32.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo can find himself drawn against former club Porto, but also could have to match wits with Ajax’s Erik ten Hag, Inter Milan’s Antonio Conte, or Red Bull Salzburg’s Jesse Marsch.

[ MORE: Man Utd pounds AZ ]

Speaking of Marsch, the Salzburg boss could go from meeting Liverpool to squaring off with Steven Gerrard and Rangers.

Gerrard could also, of course, go up against hated playing days’ rival Manchester United.

Seeded teams
Ajax
Arsenal
Basel
Benfica
Braga
Celtic
Espanyol
Gent
Inter Milan
Istanbul Basaksehir
LASK
Malmo
Manchester United
Porto
Red Bull Salzburg
Sevilla

Unseeded teams
APOEL Nicosia
AZ Alkmaar
Bayer Leverkusen
Club Brugge
Copenhagen
CFR Cluj
Eintracht Frankfurt
Ludogorets Razgrad
Olympiacos
Rangers
Roma
Wolfsburg
Wolves
Shakhtar Donetsk
Sporting Lisbon

Who can Premier League teams draw in the Round of 32?

Arsenal: APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Manchester United: APOEL Nicosia, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Wolves: Ajax, Basel, Benfica, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, Inter Milan, Istanbul Basaksehir, LASK, Malmo, Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.

Ljungberg hails ‘amazing’ teen Saka after game-changing performance

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Arsenal phenom Bukayo Saka‘s big day spurred the Gunners to a top seed in the Europa League knockout rounds.

Arsenal went behind on two deflected goals in the second half’s first 25 minutes, but Saka answered with a goal and an assist in three minutes to take a point from Belgium in a 2-2 draw at Standard Liege.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Standard Liege 2-2 Arsenal ]

Saka was at the heart of it of all good things Arsenal, the 18-year-old handed plenty of responsibility. despite his tender age.

“He was amazing,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg. “He was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and full-back. He’s a tremendous talent.”

Saka had four key passes to go with his goal and assist, winning six of eight duels while producing two tackles and an interception.

Ljungberg said Arsenal hasn’t sent its young players on loan enough, though that hardly applies to Saka given he was 17 until September.

The injured Gunners used Konstantinos Mavropanos, Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, and Reiss Nelson in the Starting XI, and brought Gabriel Martinelli off the bench.

“I feel sorry for our young players,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t been on loan, they’ve not had that exposure to men’s football. Some of them made mistakes but they’ll learn from those mistakes and won’t do them again.”

Smith-Rowe was loaned to RB Leipzig last season and Nelson starred on loan at Hoffenheim. Mavropanos played first team football for Greek Super League side PAS Giannina in his late teens.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Arsenal uses thrilling comeback to win Europa League group

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Nothing Arsenal-related is allowed to be easy, it seems.

The Gunners used a goal and an assist from Bukayo Saka to come back from a two-goal deficit and draw Standard Liege 2-2 in Belgium on Thursday, winning its Europa League group when Vitoria came back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt on a wild afternoon of soccer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Arsenal trailed on second half goals from Samuel Bastien and Selim Amallah, but rallied behind Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to score a second-straight win for interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

Saka sent in a laser cross in the 78th minute and Lacazette did quite well to power it under the bar.

He’s loving this competition, having made a serious entrance earlier in the tournament versus Eintracht Frankfurt. The 18-year-old now has two goals and five assists across all competitions this season.

The Gunners needed just three more minutes to tie the score on a day they outshot the hosts 15-11.

Saka showed his nose for goal to tie the score five minutes later with a dribble to the top of the 18 and a sly finish to the keeper’s left.

This was all happening around the same time Vitoria scored twice in three minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Eintracht Frankfurt.

Standard Liege goes from the knockout rounds to nothing in a blink, while Eintracht goes from winning the group to second.

The field for the Europa League is looking fierce, with Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg joining the competition via transfer from the UEFA Champions League.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.