Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport has described the backlash over its controversial “Black Friday” headline as a “lynching”.
The front-page headline accompanied an article about the first Serie A meeting between former Manchester United teammates Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling.
“Who are you calling racist? Lynching of a newspaper that for a century has defended liberty and equality,” read the headline of Friday’s newspaper.
Inter Milan striker Lukaku and Roma defender Smalling face off at the San Siro on Friday as the northern side look to maintain top spot in Serie A.
Both players have condemned the headline which caused uproar in a country where a number of players have recently been targeted with racist abuse.
Roma’s Smalling said the front page was “wrong and highly insensitive” while Lukaku accused the paper of “fuelling negativity and racism”.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said on Friday he was appalled by the headline.
“It’s the worst front page I’ve ever seen. It has to be,” said the 46-year-old Norwegian.
“Of course we have been in touch with Chris, just so he knows that we’ll back him and we support him. And with Romelu as well.”
On Friday, Corriere dedicated its first three pages to the affair, with photos of their past headlines treating the subject of racism.
The newspaper said they were “the enemies of racism” and consider that their headline had been “perverted by the superficiality and bad faith of social networks and websites, quick to disguise the message”.
The Italian daily praised Lukaku and Smalling, “two extraordinary professionals”.
“For them, we are sincerely sorry, our intention was not to hurt them, but rather to showcase them, and we will continue to fight racism and ignorance,” writes Corriere.
In Italy, Lukaku, Mario Balotelli, France’s Blaise Matuidi, Ivorian Franck Kessie and Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly have all been regularly targeted with insults and racist chants in recent seasons.
“Instead of focusing on a battle between two teams… Corriere dello Sport comes with the dumbest of headlines I have ever seen in my career,” Lukaku said in a message on Twitter.
“You guys keep fuelling the negativity and the racism issue.”
Lukaku and Smalling have both taken Serie A by storm since arriving in the close season, with the Belgian striker bagging 10 goals in 14 appearances for title hopefuls Inter and England international Smalling becoming an instant fan favourite in the capital.
“It is important that I acknowledge that what occurred this morning was wrong and highly insensitive,” wrote Smalling on Twitter.
“I hope the editors involved in running this headline take responsibility and understand the power they possess through words, and the impact those words have.”
Both Roma and AC Milan said that they would be banning the Corriere dello Sport until the end of 2019 over the headline.
“Our players will not carry out any media activities with the newspaper during this period,” the two clubs said in a joint statement.
They added that the ban was short because “the actual newspaper article associated with the ‘Black Friday’ headline did portray an anti-racist message”.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, said he had been stunned by the headline.
“First of all, when you see that paper you say: “Wow. Really? Is that possible?’,” Solskjaer told a press conference ahead of Saturday’s Manchester derby in the Premier League.
“I don’t work in your line of business but, wow, that’s incredible — and at least we don’t see that here.
“We can see lots of different things, but we don’t see that, so that has to be stamped down (on).”