Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku have criticised Corriere dello Sport’s “Black Friday” headline, with the on-loan Roma defender labelling it “wrong and highly insensitive”.
The former Manchester United team-mates were pictured either side of the headline on Thursday’s front page of the Italian daily, ahead of Friday’s clash between Roma and Lukaku’s Inter Milan.
The cover has attracted widespread criticism and the players had their say on Twitter on Thursday evening.
Smalling wrote: “Whilst I would have liked to spend the day focusing on the big game tomorrow, it is important that I acknowledge that what occurred this morning was wrong and highly insensitive.
“I hope the editors involved in running this headline take responsibility and understand the power they possess through words, and the impact those words can have.”
Lukaku called it the “dumbest of headlines”, adding: “You guys keep fuelling the negativity and the racisme (sic) issue (…) instead of talking about the beautiful game that’s going to be played at San Siro between two great clubs.
“Education is key (…) you guys of corriere dello sport should do a better job at that.”
Anti-discrimination organisation Fare network condemned the front page and its executive director Piara Powar branded it “at the very least clumsy”.
He told the PA news agency: “Part of the problem we have with Italy and countries like that at the moment is people do not know where to draw a line.
“They don’t know what is the right or wrong thing to do, what is appropriate or inappropriate and what might be racism and what might be acceptable.
“If this was two English players – Lukaku is Belgian obviously – and they had said it was a ‘St George’s Day clash’ or both were Belgians and it was the ‘Battle of Brussels’ that would be different, but they are highlighting their race.
“Would they ever take two white Italian players and say it’s ‘White Tuesday’? They wouldn’t and this is the issue. Why would you pick out two players who are black and highlight their race as a way to build up to the match? It crosses the line of acceptability.”
Above its headline, Corriere dello Sport ran a subhead which read: “Lukaku and Smalling, former team-mates at United – and today idols at Inter and Roma – go head to head tomorrow: the Scudetto and Champions League football are up for grabs.”
In the article the newspaper appeared to attempt to highlight the league’s racism problem.
“In the faces of those idiots who boo, tomorrow everyone must instead go ‘oooh’ like children. It will be a Black Friday, but this is not an end-of-season sale,” it said.
It went on to describe Lukaku and Smalling as “two giants of colour”.
Powar added: “We have been told by our colleagues in Italy that in fact inside the paper the story is about how these are old colleagues from United and have both been standing up to racism, but the front cover is at the very least clumsy.
“We would argue this is the sort of thing that fuels racism – the way in which Corriere dello Sport has made a point of their race.
“We have identified some time ago Italy having a particular problem and those problems exist from the discourse coming from its politicians to media reporting on social issues, migration and media reporting on football and the failure of governing bodies there to take action.”
Corriere dello Sport editor Ivan Zazzaroni subsequently posted a statement on his paper’s website, claiming the writer’s intention was to celebrate the “magnificent wealth of diversity” in football.
Zazzaroni wrote: “‘Black Friday’, for those who want to understand it and can understand it, was only praising diversity, taking pride in the magnificent wealth of diversity. If you don’t understand it, it’s because you can’t do that.
“It’s an innocent article, perfectly argued by (journalist) Roberto Perrone, that has been made poisonous by those who have poison inside them.”
Roma later released a joint statement with AC Milan, Inter’s co-tenants at San Siro, announcing Corriere dello Sport has been banned from the stadium for the rest of 2019.
Inter tweeted: “Football is passion, culture and brotherhood. We are and will always be against all forms of discrimination.”
Lukaku’s Italian agent Federico Pastorello told Sky Sports News: “Being an agent we are trying to protect our clients from this huge problem (racism) because it’s not only a newspaper but it’s a problem you can breathe in the stadium, in social media, on the street.”
Lukaku and Brescia forward Mario Balotelli are among those to make allegations of being racially abused by supporters during Serie A games this season.
Only last week all 20 clubs in Italy’s top tier signed an open letter which called on “all those who love Italian football” to unite to try to eradicate the “serious problem”.
Powar called for the players’ union in Italy to do more.
“We know AC Milan in particular, with Roma, have been doing some very good work and are keen to take the initiative in Italy,” he added.
“Players know we are there and there is a players’ union in Italy and they also now need to speak out and be more forceful in things they are saying.”