MILAN (AFP) - AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi pledged on Friday that his team would walk off the pitch again to support a player who was 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 a day 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, including international (European), if we experience episodes of this nature we will, as a rule, leave the pitch," Berlusconi said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.
Boateng said he would have no hesitation in walking off the pitch again if he suffered similar abuse in the future.
"I don't care what game it is - a friendly, Serie A or Champions League match, I'd walk off the pitch again and I think everyone would support me," Boateng told CNN.
"I'm surprised we're still hearing these things in 2013. It's not the first time in my life I've had to hear or see things like this but I'm 25 and don't want to take this any more." Footballers and sports commentators said Boateng's protest had highlighted a problem that has been tolerated for too long in Italian stadiums and which continues to dog some parts of the European game.
Damiano Tommasi, head of the Italian footballers' 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 (FIGC) 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." Abete meanwhile said he had requested a meeting with Italy's chief of police to discuss when referees can suspend matches.
Anti-racism groups applauded Boateng, as did players including Senegal-born former France midfielder Patrick Vieira, who last year urged the football authorities to adopt a zero-tolerance approach in the fight to rid the sport of racism.
He said on Twitter: "It was brave of Kevin-Prince Boateng to do what he did and it was the right thing. We need to stand up and stand together. Well done." 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. 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.
So far, European football's governing body UEFA, which has been accused of not following through on its pledge of tough action against against racist fans, has made no comment.
In a bid to show its support and "send a signal", Pro Patria, said it had invited all non-white fans to its VIP stands for the team's next home game.