Lazio mascot handler praises Mussolini after fascist salute controversy

Juan Bernabe holds Lazio mascot Olimpia before their Europa League match with Lokomotiv Moscow

Juan Bernabe holds Lazio mascot Olimpia before their Europa League match with Lokomotiv Moscow Creator: ANDREAS SOLARO

The handler of Lazio's eagle mascot has praised dictators Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco after being suspended by the Serie A club for performing a fascist salute at the end of last weekend's win over Inter Milan.

Juan Bernabe was filmed by fans at Rome's Stadio Olimpico making the gesture and chanting "Duce, Duce" while holding the eagle Olimpia and dressed in full Lazio kit in the aftermath of the 3-1 triumph over Italian champions Inter, earning fierce criticism from the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy.

On Wednesday Lazio said that Bernabe -- employed by an outside company -- would be suspended but in an interview with Rome-based daily Il Messaggero the Spaniard said he didn't understand "why this provoked so much chaos", claiming he thought he was performing a "military salute".

"I was born in the army, I come from a right wing culture, I'm a supporter of (Spanish far right party) Vox like many footballer friends of mine and I'm proud of it," the paper quoted him as saying.

He confirmed that he had performed the chants in favour of Mussolini, who founded the National Fascist Party and ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 before being killed near Lake Como by Italian partisans in 1945.

"I did it and I don't regret it because I admire Mussolini, he did great things for Italy as Franco did for Spain. I admire both of them and I'm proud of it."

Far-right fan groups are common across Italy but Lazio's hardcore supporters have a connection to the extreme right which stretches back to at least the 1970s.

Their historic ultras group, the 'Irriducibili', had friendly relations with their counterparts at Inter, who also have some of the country's most notorious far-right supporters.

The group's leader Fabrizio Piscitelli, nicknamed 'Diabolik' after an Italian graphic novel character, was shot dead two years ago in a Rome park.

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