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Before game in Saudi Arabia, Lazio aims to improve its image

ROME (AP) — After 15 years as Lazio’s president, Claudio Lotito has grown tired of his club having a negative image around the world. So as the team from Rome prepares to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Italian Super Cup against Juventus this weekend, Lotito took public relations into his own hands during a meeting with international journalists at the Foreign Press Association on Wednesday.

“Whenever we have international matches there’s always a concern that we’ll be labeled that team with the right-wing, racist and Nazi fans,” Lotito said. “These evaluations don’t apply to us. And they bother us, because they’re unfair. We want the foreign press to understand once and for all that Lazio has represented — for 15 years — another world.”

Lotito has been escorted under police protection for years after cracking down on extreme “ultra” fans who sit behind Lazio’s goal in the “curva” at the Stadio Olimpico. Still, Lazio is constantly penalized by UEFA for fans making racist chants, fascist salutes and other offensive behavior. Already this season, Lazio played multiple matches in the Europa League with portions of its stadium closed due to UEFA sanctions.

“We get fines because one person comes in with a little microphone and goes under the curva full of 12,000 people and records one sentence or salute. Can I be penalized for the actions of 28 people amid a crowd of 10,000 — as in the UEFA case?” Lotito said. “Do I have to order each and every fan watched by a police officer — one officer per fan — 12,000 fans in the curva and 12,000 officers to watch if someone raises their arm. This is absurd. This is a form of hypocrisy.

“We reported the fans who made fascist salutes to the authorities,” Lotito added. “We’ve got to get out and start talking to make people realize that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.” SUPER CUP PROTESTS

Lotito was also asked to address protests over the Super Cup being played in Saudi Arabia for the second straight season despite the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In September, Amnesty International and the journalists union for Italian state TV RAI wrote a joint letter to Lotito and Juventus counterpart Andrea Agnelli asking the clubs not to play in Saudi Arabia because of the country's human rights record.

“We’re not just going to Riyadh to play a soccer game. We also want to do something to change things there,” Lotito said. Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, met with reporters at the Foreign Press Association a day before Lotito’s appearance.

“You don't think that this (game) has been used politically to promote Saudi Arabia?” Cengiz said. “I am personally heartbroken that this is happening right now, that (Italian) football has been used to promote this place."

Cengiz waited outside the consulate last year as Khashoggi entered to collect documents needed to marry her. He never re-emerged. The Washington Post columnist, who wrote critically about the prince, was killed by agents of the Saudi government who apparently dismembered his body, which has never been found.

THIRD PLACE Lazio’s surprisingly strong form in Serie A this season seemed like an afterthought during the meeting with Lotito. Lazio has won eight straight matches and is just three points behind Serie A leaders Inter Milan and Juventus.

“The squad is having fun now and it’s important to maintain that,” Lotito said. “Football isn’t like bocce. Coming closest doesn’t mean anything. You need to achieve results.” Starting with Sunday’s game against eight-time defending Serie A champion Juventus.

“It’s a big test,” Lotito said, “to see if we’ve acquired the mentality of a great squad.”

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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