MILAN: Italian striker Mario Balotelli has hit back at Hellas Verona fans who allegedly insulted him with monkey noises during a Serie A match on Sunday after one of their leaders said it was merely part of their "irreverent" nature.
Balotelli, playing for Brescia, threatened to walk off the pitch after hearing monkey chants from the stands during the second half of his side's 2-1 defeat but was dissuaded by players from both teams.
In the latest in long line of racist incidents to hit Serie A, play was interrupted by the referee for nearly five minutes while announcements were made to the crowd.
On Monday, Verona-based Radio Cafe interviewed a man identified as Verona ultras leader Luca Castellini who played down the incidents and said that Balotelli had been "clowning around."
"We have an identity culture of a certain kind, we are irreverent supporters," he said. "We make fun of bald players, the one with long hair, the southern player and the player of colour but not with political or racist instincts. This is folklore, it stops all there."
He added: "Balotelli's Italian because he has Italian citizenship, but he can never be completely Italian."
Balotelli, born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and then given up for adoption to an Italian family when he was three, said the comments had nothing to do with football.
"You're referring to social and historical situations that are bigger than you small-minded people. Here you are, going crazy, ignorant... You are the ruin," he said on Instagram.
"But when Mario was doing it, and I guarantee you he will still score for Italy, it was fine, wasn't it?"
Balotelli has suffered racist abuse throughout his career. When he played for Inter Milan, he was taunted by rival fans with shouts of "there are no black Italians" and he suffered more insults playing for AC Milan against AS Roma in 2013.
Serie A's disciplinary committee is expected to deal with the incident on Tuesday although it has avoided sanctions in similar recent cases, saying the alleged chanting was of limited perception and could therefore not be considered a break of league rules.
"There is no avoiding it: if someone makes the sound of a monkey to a player because he's black, that's racism," the Italian players' union head Damiano Tommasi told the ANSA news agency. "Even if it's just one or two, it's too many."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)