Mario Balotelli is not to blame for the outbreak of racism in Italian football, insists AC Milan head coach Massimiliano Allegri.
The Italy striker has dominated the headlines on the peninsula since leaving Manchester City in January but the focus was often diverted from his remarkable 12-goal haul in just 13 Serie A games, as regular incidents of racist abuse plagued his progress.
A league game between Milan and Roma in May was ultimately suspended for two minutes amid swelling abuse from visiting supporters and Balotelli was frequently seen raising a finger to his lips to hush detractors across Italy.
That gesture and others have seen the striker accused of provoking the abuse - a position his coach Allegri firmly rejected ahead of a season-opening trip to Hellas Verona.
He told acmilan.com: "The racism is not about Balotelli but about a lack of culture that still exists in Italy.
"Mario is very calm, just like everyone else and we only think about playing football.
"He needs to just concentrate on playing - to have respect for the opponent but to still keep that mischievous side.
"I just hope that the imbeciles don't ruin what should be a beautiful day for Verona and for us."
Allegri is struggling for numbers ahead of a first game against Verona in 11 years, with striker Giampaolo Pazzini joining Daniele Bonera, Riccardo Saponara and Luca Antonini on the treatment table.
The attacking trident of Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and M'Baye Niang should remain in place, though, and Allegri hopes the former can kick on without leaving his team-mates to feed on scraps.
"Balotelli can score 30 goals but if the goals were spread out evenly between the strikers then that would be better," the Rossoneri boss added.
"But Mario can score 30 goals and for the first time since he arrived I think he feels like a protagonist.
"He is a great player and he can become one of the best players in the world."
Newly-promoted Verona, meanwhile, will use a three-man attack of their own - one spearheaded by well-travelled veteran Luca Toni and supported by Bosko Jankovic and Raphael Martinho.
The former Bayern Munich and Fiorentina striker is the most eye-catching summer signing at the Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi as Hellas coach Andrea Mandorlini looks to engineer a first victory over Milan since January 1997.