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Carlo Tavecchio, the frontrunner to become the new head of Italian football, has caused uproar after referring to African players as "banana eaters" during an amateur leagues meet

The favourite to become the new president of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has become embroiled in a racism row after referring to African players as "banana eaters".

Carlo Tavecchio, who has been vice-president of Italy's footballing body since 2009, has been widely tipped to take the top job after Giancarlo Abete stepped down following the Azzurri's World Cup exit.

The issue of the influx of foreign players into Serie A has been a topic of debate in Italy ever since they crashed out of the group stage in Brazil thanks to defeats to Uruguay and Costa Rica.

Tavecchio believes Italian clubs should follow a more stringent process when it comes to signing young foreign talent, pointing to the Premier League's policy as the benchmark, but his comments on African footballers have caused uproar.

"In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play," Tavecchio said at a meeting of Italy's amateur leagues.

"Here instead we get Opti Poba, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio. That's how it is here. In England, you need to demonstrate what you have on your CV and your pedigree."

Tavecchio later moved to clarify his comments, stating: "I can't remember if I said the word 'banana' but I was referring to the CV and professionalism required by English football for players who come from Africa or other countries. If anyone has interpreted my speech as offensive, I offer my apologies."

Tavecchio's remarks have sparked incredulity across a nation which has seen clubs punished for a number of incidents of racism during the past year.

In January last year, AC Milan players walked off the pitch during a friendly with Pro Patria after Kevin-Prince Boateng kicked the ball into the stands following racist abuse from the crowd, while Inter were fined and forced to close part of the San Siro stands after similar incidents among supporters.

Former Roma midfielder Damiano Tommassi, head of the Italian Footballers' Association (AIC), revealed he has received phone-calls of complaint from players in the aftermath of Tavecchio's comments.

"I am disconcerted by Tavecchio's comments on bananas and Opti Poba. I don't know whether to be even more shocked by the silence that surrounded them," Tommassi told Ansa.

"I have received a number of phone calls of protest from Italian and foreign players who are just astounded by this."