Italian Football Federation vice-chief Carlo Tavecchio in racism row

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Carlo Tavecchio, the favourite to become the next Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president, has been caught up in a racism row after referring to African players as “banana eaters”.

The influx of foreign players into Italy has been a hot topic since the national team crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage and the 71-year-old Tavecchio suggested Italy should replicate England’s stringent requirements for non-EU players.

“In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play,” Tavecchio said at the summer assembly of Italy’s amateur leagues (LND).

“Here instead we get Opti Pobà who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio. That’s how it is here. In England, you need to demonstrate what you have on your CV and your pedigree.”

Questioned by reporters about the comments afterwards, Tavecchio claimed that he could not remember what he had said in his own speech.

“I can’t remember if I said the word ‘banana’ but I was referring to the CV and professionalism required by English football for players who come from Africa or other countries,” he said. “If anyone has interpreted my speech as offensive, I offer my apologies.”

Tavecchio, who is head of the LND, faced serious criticism in Italy after the remarks, with the centre-left Democratic party coming out strongest following a wave of negative reaction from fans on social media.

“Tavecchio would do well to remember that words, especially when said by people who have important roles in institutions, have both weight and consequences,” said Cécile Kyenge, a Congo-born European MP and Italy’s former minister of integration.

“It’s sad, it seems as though he lost the sense of what he wanted to say, his ability to analyse what he was saying and the effect of what certain phrases can have on others,” she added. “Those in positions of power should remember their role of educator and pay attention to what they’re saying.”

Others from her party also weighed in on Tavecchio, with MP Davide Faraone saying that he couldn’t guide the FIGC in light of the increasingly severe measures dished out to fans for racist abuse, which is still a problem in Italian stadiums.

Last season several clubs had the areas where the hardcore “ultra” fans stand closed following racist chanting, with repeat offenders being forced to play matches behind closed doors.

“Tavecchio cannot be FIGC president,” said Faraone. “Curvas and entire stadiums have been closed for similar words. He wouldn’t have any credibility.”

President of the Italian Footballers’ Association (AIC) Damiano Tommasi also denounced Tavecchio, saying that he had received numerous complaints from incredulous players.

“I am disconcerted by Tavecchio’s comments on bananas and Opti Pobà. I don’t know whether to be even more shocked by the silence that surrounded them,” Tommasi told the Ansa news agency.

“I have received a number of phone calls of protest from Italian and foreign players who are just astounded by this.”

Tavecchio is expected to beat the former AC Milan and Italy midfielder Demetrio Albertini to the top job in the 11 Aug vote. The pair are both currently the vice-presidents of the FIGC.

The battle for control of Italian soccer’s governing body comes after the resignation of the former president Giancarlo Abete, who stepped down immediately after Italy’s embarrassing early exit from the World Cup.