Brescia's president Massimo Cellino, left, holds a soccer jersey with soccer player Mario Balotelli during a press conference in Brescia, Italy. Photo: Filippo Venezia/ANSA via AP

ROME – Brescia president Massimo Cellino was joking and his remarks were misunderstood when he said striker Mario Balotelli's problem was that he was black, and he was "trying to get whiter," the Serie A club said on Monday.

Italian football has been plagued by racism over the years and Balotelli, born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents and given up for adoption at the age of three, has been one of the main victims, most recently in a match at Hellas Verona where he was subject to abuse by home fans.

The 29-year-old has struggled to find form since joining Brescia this season, was dropped from the team for Sunday's match at AS Roma and told by coach Fabio Grosso that he needs to show more determination.

On Monday, Cellino was asked about Balotelli's situation on the sidelines of a Serie A general assembly.

"He's black, what am I supposed to say?" he replied. "He is trying to get whiter but it's not easy."

Brescia'a Mario Balotelli, center, walks on the pitch during the Serie A soccer match between Brescia and Torino. Photo: Filippo Venezia/ANSA via AP

Cellino may also have been using a play on the word "black", which in Italian is often used to mean very angry.

Bottom-of-the-table Brescia then issued a statement saying Cellino's comments were sarcastic and aimed at Balotelli's critics.

"Brescia Calcio points out that it was paradoxical joke, clearly misunderstood, which was made in an attempt to play down excessive media exposure and with the intention of protecting the player himself," the statement said. 

Reuters