MILAN: Italian  police have arrested 10 chiefs of hardline Juventus supporters clubs on suspicion of blackmailing the Serie A champions to obtain free tickets to sell on the black market in the latest blow to the image of Italian football.

The 10 ringleaders of the so-called “ultras” groups of organised fans, notorious for violence and racism, are among 37 accused of threatening to cause riots and chant racist abuse unless the club gave them free tickets to be re-sold.

The arrests came after a year-long probe by the Turin police special investigations unit Digos, which was prompted by a complaint from Juventus that the club was being blackmailed by its own fans.

Police officers carried out 39 searches in 14 towns and cities in northern and central Italy as part of its swoop on Monday. Italian football has been marred for years by criminal investigations, fan violence and racism.

Internazionale striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to racist abuse in only his second game in Italy after his transfer from Manchester United.

Those arrested on Monday face a range of charges including being accused of criminal conspiracy, racketeering, money laundering and assault, a police statement said, adding that two other fans were put under house arrest. Juventus declined to comment. Prosecutors

last year opened a separate, ongoing investigation into allegations that the ‘Ndrangheta crime mob, based in the southern Calabria region, had infiltrated the organised ultras groups in the Turin club’s Allianz stadium.

Two years ago Juventus, champions for the last eight seasons, were fined and ordered to play a home match with one of the main sections of its stadium closed for selling tickets to “ultras” and facilitating touting.

The club’s president Andrea Agnelli was fined over the scandal but his one-year ban was lifted by an Italian soccer federation appeals court in December 2017.