Croatia defender Josip Simunic will miss the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after being suspended for ten matches by Fifa for making fascist chants at the end of last month’s play-off victory over Iceland.
The Croatian FA was shocked by the severity of the ban and said it was likely to appeal.
World football’s ruling body Fifa announced the punishment in a statement yesterday. “The disciplinary committee took note that the player, together with the crowd, shouted a Croatian salute that was used during World War II by the fascist ‘Ustase’ movement,” the statement said.
“As a consequence the committee agreed that this salute was discriminatory and offended the dignity of a group of persons concerning, inter alia, race, religion or origin.
“After taking into account all of the circumstances of the case, and particularly given the gravity of the incident, the committee decided to suspend the player for ten official matches,” Fifa continued. “The first matches…have to be served during the final competition of the 2014 Fifa World Cup.”
At the end of Croatia’s 2-0 win on 19 November, Australia-born Simunic took the microphone at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, turned to the stands and shouted “Za dom” (for the Homeland), to which the audience replied “Spremni” (Ready).
The call-and-response salute is widely associated with Croatia’s Nazi-allied Ustasha regime which ruled in 1941-45 and brutally persecuted Jews, Serbs, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats.
Simunic, who plays his club football for Dinamo Zagreb, said in a statement last month that he meant nothing wrong.
“As a Croatian who was born and grew up outside my homeland, I associate home with love, warmth and positive struggle – everything we showed on the pitch to win our place in the World Cup,” said the 35-year-old.
Simunic was also fined 30,000 Swiss francs and “banned from entering the confines of the stadiums with regard to the ten matches for which he is suspended”.
The Fifa ban appears particularly severe, especially in view of the relatively light punishments that have been dished out to national teams and club sides for racist behaviour.
“We are shocked and we will probably appeal the verdict,” Croatian FA executive president Damir Vrbanovic told the Jutarnji List daily.
“We are convinced Simunic never meant to offend anyone but at the same time we are aware Fifa wanted to send a strong message.”
Croatia coach Niko Kovac was also unhappy at the length of the suspension.
“I am very disappointed with Fifa’s decision and I feel very sorry for (Josip) because I have known him for a while and I am sure he never meant any harm,” said Kovac.
Croatia have been drawn alongside hosts Brazil, Mexico and Cameroon in Group A at the World Cup that starts in June.
Meanwhile, Fifa has banned Croatia’s star forward Mario Mandzukic for just one World Cup match for a red-card challenge in the play-offs.
Mandzukic will miss the tournament’s opening match when Croatia play tournament hosts Brazil in Sao Paulo on 12 June.
Fifa says its disciplinary committee imposed the minimum sanction on Mandzukic.
Fifa disciplinary rules require bans of at least one match for “serious foul play.”
The Bayern Munich forward stamped on Iceland midfielder Johann Gudmundsson’s left knee in the second leg of their play-off in Zagreb.
Mandzukic had scored ten minutes earlier to give Croatia the lead. Croatia won 2-0 in Zagreb to advance by the same score on aggregate.