International and domestic soccer officials have spent years battling racism in Italy, where a star player in the country’s top league recently punted a ball into the stands and threatened to abandon a match over racist chants.

The problem also has trickled down to the youngest levels of the sport, and one youth soccer club recently announced an unusual response: It planned to support a 10-year-old player subjected to racist abuse by having its players wear blackface during an upcoming match.

But after that controversial gesture was criticized, the youth players will instead wear two black streaks on their faces.

“We will paint two black fingermarks on the cheeks as a sign that we’re all brothers and that the color of the skin doesn’t matter,” Aurora Desio director Alessandro Crisafulli told CNN.

The youth club, based 15 miles north of Milan, was playing neighboring Sovicese on Saturday when the mother of an opposing player directed a profane slur toward a black player, according to a post on Aurora’s Facebook page and local newspaper La Repubblica.

Al Ministro dello Sport Vincenzo Spadafora All'Assessore Regionale allo Sport Martina Cambiaghi Al Sindaco con delega...

Posted by Aurora Desio Calcio - Settore Giovanile on Monday, November 4, 2019

The boy playing for Aurora pretended not to hear the slur, according to the club’s post, but reported it to coaches and parents after the game. Aurora leaders demanded afterward Sovicese conduct an internal investigation “to identify who has made herself the author of this vile and unworthy gesture toward a 10-year-old child” and said the club would not play Sovicese again until then, even at the risk of incurring fines or penalties.

“As a symbolic gesture of total condemnation of racism and support to those who are its victims,” Aurora wrote in the Facebook post, some of its teams would play its next games “with their faces painted black.” But some were incredulous that the club would use a racially fraught device such as blackface as a form of protest, and the club revised its plans Wednesday.

It also vowed to hold workshops with other teams on the harm of racism. Already, Aurora’s youth teams wear the words “Squadra Anti Bulli,” or “Anti-Bullying Team,” on the front of their uniforms.

Sovicese in a statement said it “condemns any manifestation of racism,” according to CNN, and that it had launched an internal investigation.

Cosimo Sibilia, president of Italy’s amateur football union Lega Dilettanti, said in a tweet Tuesday that he backed Aurora’s blackface campaign and wished other clubs would join. He said he hoped it would “meet the widest participation” and would be “supported with conviction” by the Lega Dilettanti.

Even after years of anti-racism campaigns, Italian soccer fans remain among Europe’s most notorious. The insults hurled at the child playing for Aurora are routine at amateur and even youth matches, said Pavel Klymenko, development officer for FARE (formerly Football Against Racism in Europe).

“[Racism] is so much accepted that it’s flying around from a very young age,” he said in a phone interview. “Generally, these types of incidents are widespread at the grass roots level. And with the signals that [top league] Serie A is sending not dealing properly with these incidents at the highest level, it kind of trickles down.”

“These kind of things happen not only in mainstream football, but also happen in the city field with young kids who are playing,” Matteo Mastorci, a spokesman for Balon Mundial, a nonprofit soccer and refugee-rights organization in Turin, said in a phone interview.

European fans in recent years have tried all manner of gestures to offer solidarity with racially abused footballers. Napoli fans in 2016 wore and held masks of Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly after racial abuse by Lazio fans. Disputes over racial taunts have often turned violent, with clashes taking place inside stadiums or outside after matches.

The incident between Aurora and Sovicese came hours before an incident involving star Mario Balotelli of Serie A club Brescia. The striker, who was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents, was met with monkey jeers during a match at Hellas Verona.

Balotelli, who has been a frequent target of racist Italian ultras, booted a the ball into the stands toward the jeering spectators in response to the abuse and threatened to walk off the pitch, according to the Guardian.

“Balotelli is Italian because he has Italian citizenship, but he can never be completely Italian,” the president of the Verona ultras said in a radio interview after the match, the Guardian reported. He was barred from the team’s home games until 2030 for his behavior.

European soccer officials are on high alert for racist conduct after the English national team was subjected to monkey chants, Nazi salutes and other abuse during a UEFA European Championship qualifier match in Bulgaria in October.

Bulgaria already was subject to a partial stadium closure because of past racist behavior, and fans were warned that more abuse directed at English players would result in a forfeited match. The misbehavior continued, and Bulgarian Football President Borislav Mikhailov resigned the morning after the match. UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin called for “war on the racists” in soccer in a statement.

But problems among Italian audiences have persisted. On Saturday, both Balotelli’s match and Koulibaly’s match against Roma were halted by referees because of bigoted fan behavior. Italian soccer officials have discussed using anti-terrorism advanced listening devices to pinpoint fans who racially abuse players, according to the AP.

“In particular in Italy, the clubs have to take a hard position against racism,” Mastorci said. “It’s a great signal to stop the match when something happens. Now, because these kind of events are happening more often, the clubs have to take a stronger position and get these racists out of the stadium. We’re in 2019. We have cameras. We have every kind of technology to support officials to find the racists and ban them from the stadium for life.”

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