(By Paul Virgo)
(ANSA) - Rome, October 22 - Premier Enrico Letta has joined the wave of outrage sparked by former soccer great Diego Maradona making an obscene gesture on State broadcaster RAI to respond to a huge bill from Italian tax collectors.
Former Argentina and Napoli forward Maradona slapped his left hand onto his right arm in the classic Italian 'umbrella' sign - the equivalent of a British V-sign or America's middle-finger 'flipping the bird' - at revenue agency Equitalia on Rai's Sunday-night talk show Che Tempo Che Fa.
He was defending himself from allegations of tax dodging after Equitalia presented him with a bill reportedly in the region of 39 million euros last week.
"I do not like that at all, honest people who pay taxes are to be respected (but) many like Maradona, make the 'umbrella' gesture," said Letta, referring to rampant tax evasion in Italy.
The tax agency says the footballer owes them money for unpaid taxes on off-the-books earnings in sponsorship and merchandising deals from his glorious time at Napoli between 1984 and 1991.
Maradona is revered in Naples for helping the city's soccer team to win two Serie A titles and the UEFA Cup in that period.
The former player does not return to Italy very often after having a diamond-studded earring and a Rolex watch seized, among other assets, over the tax row on past visits.
Maradona, who is now in Dubai, said his gesture on RAI television was "not offensive, just sarcastic".
He reiterated claims that he is being persecuted by the Italian tax authorities and never defrauded anyone.
On Tuesday, Maradona's lawyer said his client is willing to discuss the tax issue, while insisting the former player is innocent.
"If Letta, or someone (acting) for him, wants to understand...we are available to come to Italy and sit together around a table," said Angelo Pisani in a radio interview.
"But we would like to demonstrate...a tax violation never existed".
Equitalia called the obscene gesture "absurd" while former minister Renato Brunetta, the Lower House whip for ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, said Maradona had been "indecent" but presenter Fabio Fazio "even more so".
Consumer group Codacons said Fazio and the RAI3 channel should be "punished" and claimed like Brunetta that Fazio had egged Maradona on.
Brunetta had a bust-up with Fazio on the previous week's show about Fazio's salary, which the PdL whip claimed was too high, prompting many media watchers to say other RAI stars got a lot more.