Silvio Berlusconi says AC Milan will walk off pitch again if confronted by racism
Owner says he will continue to back the tough line players have taken against racist abuse
AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi has pledged that his team will walk off the pitch again to support a player who was the victim of racist abuse by fans, as the move was widely hailed as setting a precedent against bigotry.
Italy's former prime minister, who is both president and owner of the club, spoke out after German-born Ghanaian forward Kevin-Prince Boateng was heckled during a friendly by fans of Pro Patria and the Milan giants left the field in protest.
Boateng won plaudits for taking a stance against racist fans who blight the game, although some, including former Milan players Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf, questioned his approach.
Berlusconi, however, said he would back his team if they walked off the pitch again whether in domestic or continental matches, calling the scenes at fourth-tier Pro Patria, who are based in Busto Arsizio, near Milan, "disgraceful".
"I can assure you that in every game, if we experience episodes of this nature we will, as a rule, leave the pitch," Berlusconi said.
Players and sports commentators said Boateng's protest had highlighted a problem that had been tolerated for too long in Italian stadiums and continued to dog some parts of the European game.
Damiano Tommasi, head of the Italian players' union Assocalciatori, told La Repubblica: "It's a strong, important signal that finally sets a precedent. It's good that it comes from first-rate players, who are usually accused of being less sensitive or less willing to make a stand."
Italian football federation president Giancarlo Abete said efforts were being made to identify the perpetrators, adding: "No matter what sanctions are imposed, nothing can cancel the disdain for such an intolerable episode.
"My complete backing goes to the players who were victims of racist chants and to Milan, who refused to continue playing - a decision that was shared by the referee, who had already suspended the match twice."
National team coach Cesare Prandelli, in charge when striker Mario Balotelli was racially abused by Croatia fans during last year's European championships, added: "Italy has to grow up and this is a first step."
Former Milan midfielder Gattuso, now with Swiss side FC Sion, however, suggested the incident had not been motivated by racist sentiment, but instead by a "group of idiots". "How many times have there been boos against white players in the past? It's happened to me too, but I brushed it off," he told Corriere dello Sport, adding that he lived near Busto which was "an area full of foreigners" and "no racists".
"Boateng felt offended, but I don't believe it was racism," he said. "It seems more to be the latest episode of collective idiocy from a minority."
Former Milan player Seedorf, who now plays with Botafogo in Brazil's top flight, said he feared the incident could play into the hands of potential racists.
"Walking away? Yes, you send a signal. But this has happened more than once and I don't think it really changes all that much. We are just empowering that little group with their behaviour to make this mess," he told the BBC.