LONDON • Inter Milan fans have claimed in an open letter to their striker Romelu Lukaku that the monkey chants directed at him by Cagliari fans were not racist.
The Belgian spoke out strongly against racism after being targeted last Sunday during Inter's 2-1 win, saying football was "going backwards" in the fight against discrimination.
Inter ultras from San Siro's Curva Nord claimed in a Facebook post that the striker had misunderstood Italian fan culture and that it was "a form of respect".
"We are really sorry you thought that what happened in Cagliari was racist," the letter, written in English and Italian, said.
"You have to understand that Italy is not like many other north European countries where racism is a REAL problem.
"We understand that it could have seemed racist to you but it is not like that. In Italy we use some 'ways' only to 'help our teams' and to try to make our opponents nervous, not for racism but to mess them up.
"We are a multi-ethnic fans organisation and we have always welcomed players from everywhere. However, we have always used that 'way' with other teams' players in the past and we probably will in the future. We are not racist and so are not the Cagliari fans.
"In all Italian stadiums people cheer for their teams but at the same time they... cheer against the opponents not for racism but to 'help' their own team.
"Please consider this attitude of Italian fans as a form of respect for the fact they are afraid of you for the goals you might score against their teams and not because they hate you or they are racist."
Racist incidents are not uncommon in Serie A in recent years.
Everton forward Moise Kean was also subject to racist abuse when he played against Cagliari for Juventus last season, as was Blaise Matuidi the year before.
In December last year, Inter were ordered to play two home league games behind closed doors as punishment for the racist chants directed towards Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.
Lukaku called for stronger action against racism from the game's governing bodies and social media platforms but the fans effectively criticised the former Manchester United player for his remarks.
"When you declare that racism is a problem to be fought in Italy... you contribute to create a problem that is not really there, not in the way that is perceived in other countries," the fans said.
"The fight to REAL racism has to begin in schools not in the stadiums, fans behave in different ways when inside the stadium as opposed to when they are in real life.
"What they do or say to an opponent player of another race is not what they would ever say to someone they would meet in real life."
THE GUARDIAN, ASSOCIATED PRESS