Italian soccer team seeks to improve 'racist' image

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ROME--Lazio, the defending champion in Italy's top soccer league, is undertaking a public relations effort to help defend itself against racism-related criticism.

The protests came to a head earlier in October, during a 1-1 draw against the U.K.'s Arsenal soccer club in European Champion's League play. In that game, every time a black Arsenal player touched the ball, a sizeable minority of the 60,000 fans at Rome's Olympic Stadium booed and jeered.

Lazio, which has a growing reputation as the team supported by Italy's right-wing extremist groups, is the only one of Italy's six largest soccer clubs to never field a black player.

FIFA, the international soccer organizing body, blasted the organization for what it called "racist conduct" and several local human rights groups have called on boycotts of the team's games and merchandise. One Rome newspaper sug-gested the team should change its nickname from the "White and Sky Blues" to "The New Facists." Even Italian politicians complained that the team could affect the country's reputation abroad.

"This is clearly a case of a minority (of fans) damaging the reputation of the team and the organization," says Rome media attorney Carlo Becattini.

Though most Lazio officials sidestep commenting officially on the delicate issue, several have said privately that the team is concerned about the problems and that it would be taking action. Signs being posted in town to publicize the team's upcoming games now include the phrase "Bring your team spirit ... and leave intolerance at home."

Furthermore, commentators on Lazio's weekly TV program warned fans that racist behavior would not be tolerated at the games, and members of at least one of more than 100 Lazio fan groups said that the team asked them to help lead fans in a more wholesome direction.

The team effort has stopped short of being an official initiative -- a spokeswoman said no funds have been diverted to the effort, no public relations or advertising companies have been contacted -- but it nonetheless seems an important part of preventing the squad from developing an extreme identity.

"This is an important battle that will help determine the team's image all over Italy and abroad," Mr. Becattini said.

Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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