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Ukraine leader backs Zozulya after 'Nazi' chants by Rayo fans

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Kiev (AFP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday extended his support to Ukrainian international Roman Zozulya after the Albacete striker was called a "Nazi" by fans of Spanish club Rayo Vallecano.

Sunday's Segunda Division game at Rayo was suspended at half-time after home supporters chanted "puto Nazi" ("fucking Nazi") at Zozulya.

Rayo are based in the working class Vallecas neighbourhood of Madrid, and their fans are known for left-wing activism.

The Ukrainian leader said the entire country backed Zozulya who he called "not only a cool football player but a true patriot."

"Roman Zozulya, not only your team supports you, the whole of Ukraine supports you," Zelensky said on Facebook.

"We are with you."

Earlier Monday the Ukrainian embassy in Spain said it strongly condemned "the new provocation" against Zozulya.

"Insults and threats against Roman Zozulya are absolutely unfair and unacceptable," the mission said.

Ukraine's foreign ministry spokeswoman Kateryna Zelenko said Kiev urged the Spanish authorities and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) "to respond appropriately to the incident."

Zozulya joined Rayo on loan in 2017 from Real Betis but never made an appearance for the club after his spell was cut short due to opposition from Rayo fans who protested against Zozulya's alleged support for the far right.

In an open letter to Rayo's supporters in 2017, the Ukraine forward denied any links to neo-Nazi groups.

But he also admitted he financially supported the Ukrainian army battling against Russian-backed separatists in the country's industrial east.

In 2015, he posted a picture on Twitter marvelling at his physical resemblance to controversial nationalist icon Stepan Bandera.

Bandera fought both Nazi and Soviet forces during World War II and is feted by many in Ukraine as a hero.

Ukraine's football association chief Andriy Pavelko said the Rayo fans' chants were an example of "xenophobia."

"The insults addressed at our compatriot and devoted Ukrainian patriot should be thoroughly investigated by the Spanish police," Pavelko said on Facebook.

He said he was grateful to Albacete and La Liga for their support.

Rayo Vallecano president Raul Martin Presa backed Zozulya and condemned the verbal attacks.

"We strongly condemn the insults that a section of the supporters ... uttered towards an opposing player," he said.

"We feel pain and shame after what happened."

Instances of racism are not uncommon at Ukrainian stadiums.

Last month Shakhtar Donetsk captain Taison was sent off for kicking the ball at Dynamo Kiev fans after they targeted him with racist abuse.

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