ROME (AFP) - Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling on Thursday (Dec 5) slammed a renowned Italian sports daily as "dumb" and "insensitive" after it used "Black Friday" in a front page headline about them meeting for the first time in Serie A.
Former Manchester United team mates Smalling and Lukaku face off at the San Siro on Friday as Inter Milan look to maintain top spot in Serie A, prompting the Rome-based Corriere dello Sport to publish a headline that has attracted widespread condemnation.
"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 summer, 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 Italian 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 announced on Thursday evening 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".
The article praised the two players for taking "strong positions against racism and are the symbols of the two clubs", but Roma tweeted "not a single soul" would think the headline a good idea.
"The intention of the newspaper article was actually positive but this headline has totally overshadowed the anti-racist message contained within the story," Roma's chief strategy officer Paul Rogers told AFP.
"Unfortunately, as we've seen on social media, more people will see that ill-judged headline on the front page than read the actual article and it creates new issues at a time when we are all trying to tackle the issue of racism in Italian football."
The headline cause uproar in a country where a number of black players have been targeted with racist abuse.
Mario Balotelli was racially abused by Hellas Verona fans last month, while AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie was also targeted by Verona supporters and Lukaku was himself abused at Cagliari, also serial offenders.
Lukaku's club Inter Milan said earlier: "football is passion, culture and brotherhood. We are and will always be against all forms of discrimination."
The Corriere dello Sport was unrepentant, saying the headline was "only the praise of difference, the pride of difference, the magnificent wealth of difference".
"White, black, yellow. Denying difference is the typical macroscopic stumbling block of anti-racism racism," it said in an editorial.
"An innocent headline... is transformed into poison by those who have poison inside."