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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

Belarusian Premier League roundup: BATE Borisov pick up win, end early-season drought

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The Belarusian Premier League – the only active European top-flight league at the moment – continued on Saturday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

FC Rukh 0-1 BATE Borisov

With an early goal from midfielder Stanislav Dragun, BATE Borisov, Belarus’ most successful team (15 league titles) and a regular face in European competition, earned their first win of the season. Kirill Alshevsky, who took over at the helm prior to the season, had started his spell on a two-game losing streak.

BATE, despite not winning the possession battle decisively, generated twice as many shots on target as the visitors, registering a total of 11 shots throughout 90 minutes at Borisov Arena.

A winner of 13 straight Belarusian Premier League titles – spanning from 2006 to 2018 – pressure began looming over BATE after starting the 2020 campaign with back-to-back lackluster results. BATE, who lost to Arsenal in Europa League’s Round of 32 in April 2019, were outscored 5-2 in the first, two games of the league.

Dinamo Minsk, the second most successful Belarusian side, also picked up their first three points on Friday, following a slower-than-usual start to the season. Meanwhile, defending champion Dinamo Brest fell 2-1 to Slavia-Mozyr, dropping to eighth on the table.

Elsewhere in Belarusian Premier League 

Shakhtyor 0-0 Nerman

Dinamo Brest 1-2 Slavia-Mozyr

NWSL extends league-wide training moratorium through May

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The NWSL is extending its league-wide training moratorium another month amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced on Saturday.

All NWSL teams will be unable to partake in team trainings until at least May 5, extending its previous training moratorium that was set to expire on Sunday, April 5. The 2020 season – which was set to start on April 18 – is expected to start by the end of June, according to NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird.

“We’ve been just communicating with our players and we’re targeting for the end of June for our season to start,” Baird told The Equalizer. “I say that with conviction and hope, but … we’re gonna adhere to the public health guidelines that are in place at the time and I don’t think that we can predict what they are. But our strategy is in place.”

Earlier this week, Major League Soccer and United Soccer League extended their training moratorium through April 24 and April 19, respectively.

Report: England manager Gareth Southgate agrees to 30 percent pay cut

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England manager Gareth Southgate has agreed to a 30 percent pay cut amid the coronavirus pandemic, our partners at Sky Sports reported on Saturday.

[ MORE: What PL clubs are doing to help during coronavirus ] 

Southgate’s move, which is reportedly expected to be confirmed by the Football Association (FA) next week, comes hours after the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) released a statement on behalf of the Premier League players responding to proposed pay cuts.

A FA spokesperson told Sky Sports the following: “The financial implications of the coronavirus are not yet known however, as a not-for-profit organization, we want to ensure that we take the appropriate course of action to support the wider organization and our employees.

“We will make a further announcement on our next steps in due course.”

On Friday, Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe – and a handful of technical staff personnel – became the first Premier League manager to take a voluntary pay cut. Howe’s “significant, voluntary” pay cuts were done in light of the club furloughing non-playing employees throughout the organization, joining Tottenham, Norwich, Newcastle and Liverpool.

Spanish league and players still far apart on salary cuts

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish league and players are still far apart on the size of the salary cuts they need to take to help reduce the financial impact caused by the coronavirus outbreak, with the footballers saying the organization wants them to carry nearly half the total losses.

The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.

The players have said they are willing to reduce their salaries, but not as much as the league or the clubs want.

“After analyzing the current circumstances of the sector and given the distance in conversations with the players’ association, it is necessary to adopt measures in view of the serious economic crisis that COVID-19 is causing in the Spanish soccer industry,” the league said in a statement.

It also added that government furloughs are “an exceptional mechanism to avoid and mitigate the negative impact that COVID-19 is having on the sector, and thus guarantee its subsequent recovery.”

According to media reports, the league expects losses of 957 million euros ($1.03 billion) if the season is canceled, with 303 million euros ($327 million) lost if it resumes with games in empty stadiums and 156 million euros ($168 million) of deficits if it continues with fans.

The players said the total cuts in salaries requested by the league would account for 451 million euros ($487 million) if the top flight cannot restart.

The reduction in salaries being discussed reportedly varies depending on the clubs, and also on whether they are playing in the Champions League or the Europa League.

Team captains met with the players’ association late Friday to discuss their options after the league earlier in the day called for all clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs to reduce labor costs while the stoppage of play continued. The furloughs help the clubs and guarantee players their jobs once the crisis is over.

The league said it is responsible for preserving an industry that represents 1.37 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and employs about 185,000 people.

Atlético Madrid and Barcelona were among the clubs to resort to the furloughs in recent days. Both reached an agreement with players to reduce their salaries by 70 percent, and guaranteed the wages of other employees were unaffected.

There are nearly 125,000 cases of the new coronavirus in Spain, which on Saturday surpassed Italy as the country with the second-most infections behind the United States. The death toll in the nation stands at 11,744.

The government is expected to extend lockdown measures until April 26, likely keeping the Spanish league suspended until then.

The league has said the season won’t resume until authorities deem it safe for everyone’s health. It said it will recommend a “minimum of 15 days” of practice before the games can restart, though it suggested recently the training period may begin with restrictions before the lockdown is removed.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni