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‘The problem is I’m Italian’ says Balotelli amid racism debate

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ROME (AP) The ball that Mario Balotelli angrily kicked high into the stands out of frustration because of racist chants is still traveling.

Figuratively speaking, at least.

In a Serie A season that has been marred by discriminatory slurs from the outset, Balotelli’s outburst has prompted more debate, more outrage and more indignation over the problem of racism inside Italy’s stadiums than any other case.

“I am not saying that I am different to the other players who receive the same abuse, the same monkey noises, but the problem is that I am Italian,” said Balotelli, who was born in Italy to Ghanaian immigrants and has represented the Italian national team.

Luca Castellini, the leader of the Hellas Verona “ultra” fan section that directed the racist chants at Balotelli, sees it differently.

“Balotelli is Italian because he has Italian citizenship but he’ll never be fully Italian,” Castellini said Monday, a day after the incident during the second half of the Verona-Brescia game.

Castellini’s comment caught the attention of Liliana Segre , an 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor and Italian senator who recently proposed a parliamentary commission against anti-Semitism.

“They’re still judging people by the color of their skin?” Segre said. “There’s a good reason why this commission should get to work straightaway.”

Balotelli, meanwhile, wrote on Instagram: “People like (Castellini) should be banned from society – not just soccer.”

Vincenzo Spadafora, the government minister for sport and youth policies, chimed in and ordered Hellas Verona and the city’s mayor – who had denied the existence of the racist chants – to condemn Castellini.

Verona responded by banning Castellini from its stadium until 2030 – adding on to a previous ban through 2022 – and the Italian league ordered part of the Bentegodi Stadium closed to fans for the team’s next home match, noting that the chants “were clearly audible.”

The punishments come in stark contrast to the way the league ignored monkey noises directed at Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku during a match at Cagliari in September. There was also no punishment for racist chants aimed by Verona fans at AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie in September.

Derogatory chants have also been aimed at Dalbert Henrique, Miralem Pjanic, Ronaldo Vieira and Kalidou Koulibaly in Serie A this season. All the players targeted – except for Pjanic, who is Bosnian – are black.

“Too often the soccer clubs have played down and defended – due to laziness, connivance or fear – the extremists among their own fans,” Spadafora said. “Over the last few months things have started to change but there are still many steps to be taken.”

On Tuesday, Verona prosecutors announced the opening of two separate investigations – one into Castellini for allegedly instigating racial discrimination and the other into the chants inside the stadium.

Hellas Verona president Maurizio Setti said his team was being treated as “a scapegoat,” while Verona Mayor Federico Sboarina labeled the partial stadium closure “Kafkian.”

Another city politician suggested a class action lawsuit against the Italian league, and a group of city council members proposed that the city should sue Balotelli for defamation.

There is a long history of Balotelli being subjected to racist chants in Verona, stretching back to when he said “the fans in Verona disgust me” after a Chievo Verona-Inter Milan match in 2010 when he played for Inter.

After three seasons in France, Balotelli returned to Italy this season with Brescia, his hometown club and a regional rival of Verona.

“I’ll be honest, I really like the stadium in Verona and their fans, as they have always mocked in an amusing and ironic way,” Balotelli said on TV channel Italia 1. “If they want to distract a player, they can do it in a thousand ways, but not (with racism).

“My daughter saw this on TV and that made it hurt three times as much,” Balotelli added. “I can take all kinds of insults, but ones based on racism are not acceptable, have never been acceptable and never will be acceptable. Those who did it, and I repeat they are only a few, are complete idiots.”

What was lost in the post-match discussion was how well Balotelli played in Verona.

He hit the post in the first half then scored with a curling shot into the top corner from beyond the box late in Brescia’s 2-1 loss.

Balotelli’s form, however, was not the reason why Italian soccer federation president Gabriele Gravina made a public call for the striker to be called back onto the national team.

“It would be an extraordinary message to the world, to people who think about putting off their opponents by making expressions of that kind,” Gravina said. “Balotelli is Italian. I’m with him all the way. He has shown to have a more-than-Italian level of sensitivity.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Berhalter made almost as much as Ellis in first few months

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NEW YORK (AP) American men’s soccer coach Gregg Berhalter earned nearly as much from the U.S. Soccer Federation in his first four months as women’s counterpart Jill Ellis took home in 12.

[ MORE: Messi says Barcelona is “home,” but he “sees weird things happening” ]

Berhalter, hired on Dec. 2, 2018, had compensation of $304,113 from the USSF in the year ending last March 31, according to the tax return released by the federation on Wednesday. That figure included a $200,000 signing bonus.

Ellis, who became women’s coach in May 2014, had compensation of $390,409 in the fiscal year. She went on to lead the Americans to their second straight World Cup title, was voted FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year, then left in October. Any bonus she earned as a result of the title likely will be listed on the next year’s tax return.

Her base salary was raised to $500,000 in late 2018, a person with knowledge of her contract told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the USSF has not announced that.

The USSF has said she was the highest-paid women’s coach in the world.

Tab Ramos, who was the men’s under-20 team coach before leaving in October to become coach of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, outearned Ellis with compensation of $460,772.

Ellis did earn more than Earnie Stewart ($291,667), hired as men’s general manager in June 2018, and Dave Sarachan ($241,869), interim men’s national team coach from October 2017 until Berhalter was hired.

[ MORE: Guardiola will not leave Man City: “Truth will prevail” ]

Jürgen Klinsmann, fired as men’s coach in November 2016, was paid $1,475,000 on Feb. 1, 2018. He received $3,354,167 in the year ending March 31, 2018.

Bruce Arena, who replaced Klinsmann and led the men’s team through its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup , was not listed on the latest return. He received $1,249,348 in the year ending March 31, 2018, which included what was listed on that return as a $300,000 settlement.

Earnings were listed for several of the players on the U.S. women team, including Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd (both $313,390), Crystal Dunn ($312,142), Lindsey Horan ($304,142) and Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Megan Rapinoe (all $304,140).

Their salaries ranged from $164,642 to $171,140 and include $100,000 for time with the national team. The remainder is what the federation pays for the time with clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Bonuses were from $133,000 to $146,000 and include per match fees and the payment for qualifying for the 2019 World Cup.

Women’s national team players have filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the USSF that is scheduled for trial starting May 5 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The top two salaries of the administrative staff were chief executive officer Dan Flynn ($899,440) and chief commercial and strategy officer Jay Berhalter ($779,765), the coach’s brother. Flynn retired in September and the federation said Jay Berhalter is leaving at the end of February.

Messi says Barcelona is ‘home,’ but he ‘sees weird things happening’

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Lionel Messi is not sure what to make of recent allegations that Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is responsible a social media campaign which set out to criticize the club’s top players while also aiming to rebuild his own reputation.

[ MORE: Pep’s not-so-subtle warning to Barcelona: “Don’t talk too loudly” ]

Messi once again called Barcelona his “home,” though he also admitted that he “sees weird things happening,” presumably referring to statements made in recent months and weeks by members of the Barca hierarchy, including Bartomeu and sporting director Eric Abidal.

For a club of Barcelona’s size and stature to be airing this much dirty laundry for the world to see is certainly weird, to say the least. Messi sounds like he’s desperate to remain at the club and finish his career there, though it’s beginning to sound as if certain individuals have other ideas — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was a little surprised because I was not present, I was traveling. When I arrived, I discovered it all bit by bit. The president told us the same things he said in public, the same things he said at a press conference — what was the situation, what had happened. And I cannot say more.

“The truth is that I see weird things happening. But, it was also said that there would be evidence. We will have to wait to see if it is true or not. We can’t say much and we have to wait and see what happens. Frankly, the subject seems strange to me.”

“I love Barcelona, although I miss Rosario very much.

“This is my home, I was here longer than in Argentina. I love Barcelona, the place where I live, Castelldefels, and I live a life that I like very much.”

Pep’s not-so-subtle warning to Barcelona: ‘Don’t talk too loudly’

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Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are currently neck-deep in legal troubles after UEFA handed the Premier League side a two-year European ban last week, leading a handful of clubs and figures from around the continent to delight over their current predicament.

[ MORE: Guardiola will not leave Man City: “Truth will prevail” ]

Guardiola’s message for those folks, including some longtime friends and former co-workers at Barcelona? Essentially, don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.

Earlier this week, allegations were made that Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who voiced his full support of the punishment handed down by UEFA, was involved in a campaign to bash a number of key players and figures at the club while also attempting to boost his own reputation.

“I don’t know if they spy me, but they know me. It is not necessary to spy me. If they are happy we are suspended, I say to the president of Barcelona, give us two appeals. I ask right now the people trust what they have done. Don’t talk too [loudly], Barcelona. That is my advice because everybody is involved in situations. We are going to appeal and hopefully in the future we can play Champions League against Barcelona.”

Players ‘absolutely dead’: Mourinho finds no faults in Spurs’ performance

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Jose Mourinho can find few, if any, faults in Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-0 defeat to RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday, as he is simply making do with the very limited and exhausted tools presently at his disposal.

[ MORE: Spurs fall under nonstop pressure from RB Leipzig (video) ]

“[Lucas] Moura was absolutely dead, [Steven] Bergwijn was absolutely dead, [Giovani] Lo Celso was absolutely dead,” Mourinho said as he ran through the list of players forced to play all 90 minutes despite desperately needing a reprieve.

Given his side’s current injury list — Harry Kane, Son-Heung Min, Moussa Sissoko and Juan Foyth are all out, while Lo Celso, Erik Lamela and Ben Davies have only just returned to the team in recent days — Mourinho was emphatic in stating his players “did everything they could do” — quotes from the BBC:

“What do you mean by ‘the real Spurs?’ Come on, let’s be loyal to the boys and tell them they did everything they could do.

“Lamela — you know how many training sessions with the team? Zero. Direct from injury to recovery with physios and then direct to 20 minutes in the Champions League.

“There are two perspectives — an amazing group and amazing guys, but another side you see how we are at the moment. It’s a situation like going to fight with a gun without bullets.

“You can say we had luck in some moments, but a great goalkeeper made two magnificent saves. I’m not worried with the 1-0. We can go there and win. What worries me is that these are our players for the next however many matches.

“Moura was absolutely dead, Bergwijn was absolutely dead, Lo Celso was absolutely dead. We are really in trouble. If it was just this game I’d say no problem but we have FA Cup and Premier League games.

“I know Lamela could only give us 20 minutes and I knew Ndombele could not play for 90 minutes. I tried to manage the pieces I had. Don’t tell me Lamela and Ndombele could have started the game, they couldn’t have started the game.

“Here we go, Chelsea [Spurs’ opponent at 7:30 a.m. ET on Saturday], drinking sparkling water with lemon. Saturday morning [looking at the interviewer — the game was moved for television coverage] — thank you very much for the choice.”

Tottenham’s recent “winter break” was reduce from 14 to 10 days when they were forced to face Southampton in a fourth-round FA Cup replay two weeks ago today.