Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport has defended its front page which previews a soccer game with the headline “Black Friday.”
The banner was accompanied by photographs of former Manchester United teammates Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku, who play for AS Roma and Inter Milan respectively.
The two teams are set to face each other in Italy’s top division Friday, but the paper has been subject to widespread condemnation.
“Tone deaf, ignorant and with the usual racial undertones. Saying I’m shocked would be a lie at this point,” tweeted football journalist Matteo Bonetti.
The rest of the article, which looked ahead to Friday’s clash, appeared to address the league’s ongoing racism issues.
“To hell with the idiots who ‘boo,’ tomorrow we should all do ‘oooh’ like children. We play a great Black Friday. But it is not the sales season,” it read.
Ivan Zazzaroni, editor of Corriere dello Sport, wrote a passionate defense of the headline Thursday, criticizing those who took offense.
“‘Black Friday’, for those who want and can understand it, was and is only the praise of difference, the pride of difference, the magnificent wealth of difference,” he wrote.
“If you don’t understand it, it’s because you can’t do it or because you’re pretending you can’t do it.
“An innocent title, actually perfectly argued by Roberto Perrone (the article’s writer), is transformed into poison by those who have poison inside themselves.”
However, both AS Roma and Inter Milan have tweeted opposition to the headline.
“Football is passion, culture and brotherhood. We are and always will be opposed to any form of discrimination,” Inter Milan tweeted, while AS Roma criticized the paper’s headline writers.
Responding to the front cover, Smalling said he hoped those behind the headline took responsibility for their actions.
“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,” he tweeted later Thursday.
“I hope the editors involved in running this headline take responsibility and understand the power the possess through words, and the impact those words can have.”
Lukaku described it as one of the “most dumbest headlines” he’d ever seen.
“You guys keep fueling the negativity and the racism issue,” he tweeted.
Another Italian giant AC Milan launched a strong rebuke and later joined AS Roma in banning the paper at its facilities until the end of the year.
“Both clubs are aware that the actual newspaper article associated with the ‘BLACK FRIDAY’ headline did portray an anti-racist message and for this reason, we have only banned Corriere dello Sport until January,” said a joint statement. “We remain totally committed to tackling racism.”
Roma’s chief strategy officer Paul Rogers said earlier the choice of headline was “shocking.”
“The clear intention of the newspaper story was actually something positive but the headline has completely overshadowed the anti-racist message contained within the article,” he said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, more people will see that ill-advised headline than read the actual article and it creates a completely unnecessary controversy at a time when clubs are trying to tackle the issue of racism in Italian football.”
The headline comes at a time when Italian football has been criticized for the way it has handled racist incidents.
Earlier this season, Lukaku was the subject of monkey chants from Cagliari fans and Brescia striker Mario Balotelli said he had experienced racial abuse by opposition Verona fans.
Both incidents were met with meager penalties – Verona was handed a one-match partial stadium closure and Cagliari escaped any serious punishment.
All of Italy’s top soccer clubs had recently penned an open letter promising to do more to tackle its “serious problem” with racism, admitting not enough had been done to combat the issue over the years.
“We must now act with speed, with purpose and with unity and we call on you, the fans, to support us in this vitally important endeavor,” it read.
This is not the first time an Italian paper has been embroiled in a racism row.
In 2012, Gazzetta Dello Sport published a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong ahead of Italy’s game with England at the European Championship.
CNN’s Gianluca Mezzafiore and Sharon Braithwaite contributed to this report.