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MARO ITOJE admires the conduct of England footballers Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose in the face of racial abuse from fans.
The pair were subjected to discriminatory chanting during last month’s 5-1 Euro 2020 qualifying win in Montenegro to ignite debate over how best to tackle the issue amid further high-profile incidents, including one involving Moise Kean of Juventus.
England and Saracens lock Itoje, who will start Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Munster at Champions Way, has called for decisive action to be taken.
“I feel for those players. They didn’t cause any harm to anyone and didn’t aggravate anyone,” said Itoje, who revealed he has never been racially abused in his sport.
“To be abused purely because of the colour of your skin is absolutely shocking. It’s horrible and they’ve all handled themselves in a very dignified, very elegant way.
“They’re a credit to themselves and they’re a credit to the whole of the black community. All of us in different sports are extremely proud because what they’re experiencing is unacceptable.
“I think the toughest penalties need to be dropped down on those football associations and for the clubs whose fans give racial abuse, they should have fans banned from the stadium.
“We should have empty stadiums. That’s not going to be nice to see, but I believe that racial abuse shouldn’t be tolerated and we shouldn’t make excuses for it.
“Even though it’s a minority, if the minority want to spoil it for everyone then that’s their choice, they shouldn’t be allowed in the vicinity.”
Itoje insists rugby must remain vigilant over racism, but the experience of attending Arsenal’s 2-0 League Cup defeat by Tottenham in December has demonstrated to him that the sports unfold in different landscapes.
“People are so passionate about football that maybe it brings out their innate tribal beliefs about certain people and they say whatever they can to either hurt or insult that person,” he said.
“Unfortunately I would not doubt that a lot of those people actually have racist views. Football has highlighted that issue. I don’t think it is just related to football, you can probably see that in other walks of life.
“I actually question whether a lot of football fans actually go to football to watch their team play.
“At the Emirates Stadium I was shocked by the amount of abuse, the amount of ridicule, the amount of horrible language used.”
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