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Lavezzi denies racism after slant-eyed pose provokes outrage in China

Shanghai (AFP) – Argentina international Ezequiel Lavezzi has issued an apology through his Chinese club after publicity photos showing him in a slant-eyed pose caused outrage on social media.

Lavezzi, who joined Chinese Super League (CSL) side Hebei China Fortune last year from Paris Saint-Germain, landed in hot water over the weekend as photos emerged with the 32-year-old smiling and pulling the corners of his eyes back.

“The club has discussed this matter with Lavezzi, who said he meant no racial offence and apologised deeply for any harmful impression that it created,” the club said in a statement on Sunday.

The episode illustrates the potential culture clashes that can arise as Chinese teams spend big on foreign players. It comes just a week after Brazil striker Hulk, who plays for Shanghai SIPG, denied claims of a racially-charged assault on a rival team’s coach.

Hebei China Fortune said some photos in the Lavezzi promotional shoot taken earlier this year were meant to be in a “light-hearted” and “wacky” vein.

But the team nonetheless conceded it had not been vigilant enough in the matter and would “draw lessons” from it, vowing to prevent anything similar occurring again.

The pictures drew condemnation on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, with outraged users demanding Lavezzi be punished or even tossed out of the league.

“This is an extremely abominable gesture that discriminates against Chinese people. Get him out of here!” said one posting.

The club did not announce any punishment for Lavezzi. No direct statement from the player was immediately seen.

– Foreign invasion –

Lavezzi is among a wave of foreign players signed in recent years by free-spending Chinese clubs amid a state-encouraged push to develop soccer laggard China into a world power.

Brazilian midfielder Oscar has joined his countryman Hulk at SIPG this season in the biggest transfer in Asian football history — a whopping 60 million euros.

Shanghai Shenhua this year, meanwhile, added Argentine former Manchester City and Juventus striker Carlos Tevez on a reported annual salary of 38 million euros.

Other recent high-profile signings have included Brazilians Alex Teixeira and Ramires, and Colombia’s Jackson Martinez.

A Chinese company that works as an official photo partner for the CSL put out a statement saying the offending photos of Lavezzi were shot in Spain in February when the team was conducting winter training there.

The company, ImagineChina, said they were taken by photographers from Spanish national news agency EFE who were hired by ImagineChina for the shoot.

ImagineChina said the photographers had no intention of producing insulting photos.

On May 6, the head coach of CSL side Guizhou Zhicheng, Li Bing — who has since been sacked — accused Hulk of punching an assistant coach.

Li initially implied the attack was racially motivated though he later appeared to back off that assertion.

Hulk and SIPG denied the accusations and the Brazilian said on Weibo that he was being slandered, adding: “I like and respect all of the Chinese people.”

The Lavezzi episode recalled the controversies that erupted in 2008 ahead of and during the Beijing Olympics, when photos emerged showing the disrespectful gesture being made by members of Spain’s men’s basketball and women’s tennis teams, and Argentina’s women’s football squad.

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