The Croatian international defender Josip “Joe” Simunic is not losing hope in returning to action for the national team in time to take part in the forthcoming World Cup.
The Australian-born player was hit with a ten match ban by FIFA following his allegedly pro-Nazi outburst last November after Croatia’s 2-0 win over Iceland in a World Cup qualifier. Simunic was punished for leading the crowd at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb in a chant with Nazi connotations.
After the match that secured Croatia’s place at the World Cup, the supremely popular footballer took a microphone from an announcer and shouted “za dom” (for the homeland), to which thousands of fans responded “spremni” (ready).
The ban, if not overturned on appeal, will most likely put an end to a distinguished international career of the 36-year old after 105 caps for the Vatreni (Fiery Ones), as the Croatian national team is known.
The salute “for the homeland ready” was used by the Agen Domino99 infamous Ustashe (Insurgents), the extreme right wing organization which ruled Croatia from 1941 until the end of the Second World War in May of 1945.
The full form of the salute during World War 2, in which Croatia was a minor member of the Axis Powers, read “for the Leader and the homeland ready”, the Leader (equivalent to the German “Fuhrer”) being the Croatian pro-Nazi dictator Ante Pavelic.
Since the Ustashe committed countless well-documented atrocities against the Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and even many left-leaning Croats, any use of symbols reminiscent of their era is very much frowned-upon or outright banned in Croatia, depending on the social context.
The association between the salute pronounced by Simunic and the Ustashe regime was FIFA’s rationale for imposing the harsh ban on the player.
“The salute was discriminatory and offended the dignity of a group of persons,” FIFA said in the statement announcing the punished.”
Older than the Nazis?
However, Simunic and many Croats dispute that the salute as used on the occasion reflected any Nazi sentiments. As the player said after the event, “for me it was just an expression of my deep love of my homeland” and lacked “any hint of hate or violence.”
Other people have come forward reminding everyone that the salute “for the homeland…” predates Nazism by several centuries. Indeed, variations of the salute appeared in several literary works from the mid-17th to early 20th century.
The Croatian politician and military leader Josip Jelacic (b. 1801 – d. 1859) is reputed to have regularly used the slogan “for the homeland ready to die” in his addresses to the soldiers during his Hungarian campaigns.
Most famously, a similar salute was mentioned in a well-known opera “Nikola Subic Zrinski” written in 1876 by the Croatian author Ivan Zajc.
The opera tells how Zrinski, a historic Croatian military leader, exhorted his troups before the final charge against the Ottoman Turks in the 1566 Battle of Szigetvar by shouting “for the homeland now let us fight!”
The libretto was written many decades before the Ustashe movement was founded and before any strife between the Croats and the Serbs.
What it means Down Under
Still, all of this hardly exonerates Simunic. What comes to mind to most people in the former Yugoslavia upon hearing “for the homeland ready” is not an opera or a 17th century poem.
On the contrary, ever since the World War 2 those words have carried pro-Nazi and pro-Ustashe, rather than artistic or romantic connotations. The veteran athlete should have known that his chants would hurt the numerous descendants of Ustashe victims.
The only question is whether he, in fact, did know. Because, his apologists say, he spent his youth in an environment where certain symbols have acquired slightly different meanings over the past 60-70 years.
Ethnic Croats from Australia, Canada, Argentina and Germany claim that in their communities the slogan “for the homeland ready” lost pro-Nazi overtones long ago, becoming a mere expression of national identity for the people living thousands of miles away from the land of their fathers. A distinct cultural interpretation.
Simunic was born in 1978 in Canberra to a family of Croatian emigrants who, like tens of thousands of other ethnic Croats, fled the poverty and persecutions of communist Yugoslavia in the years following the World War 2.
In 1998 he moved from Australia to Germany and played for Hamburger SV, Hertha and Hoffenheim until the summer of 2011. He was 33 when he signed for Dinamo Zagreb and settled in Croatia for the first time.
Before last November, Simunic had never been linked to a Nazi or a racist incident. He had plenty of chances to get into trouble, having played many times alongside or against Serbs, Jews and black players, but no suggestions of any wrongdoings have emerged.
It is imaginable that for Simunic the salute that brought him into disrepute is just another reminder of the homeland his parents reluctantly left.
Like a flag, an embroidery, a folk costume, a book from a Croatian author brought from the old country. A way of saying “I’m a Croat”, rather than a message of hostility against anyone.
Will this distinct cultural interpretation of Joe’s salute convince FIFA? Not likely. The ban will probably be confirmed and his international career will finish on a sad note.
Awaiting the final verdict
But, the appeal has already been filed and Simunic said to the Max! weekly he still hoped to be present on the day the World Cup opens on June 12th in Sao Paulo with a duel between Brazil and Croatia.
Last weekend Davor Prtenjaca, the attorney representing Simunic against FIFA, launched an online petition in support of his client under the slogan “With Josip Simunic to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil”.
In six days, through January 25th, the petiton on the page www.za-dom.eu was signed by 111,400 people from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Australia, Germany and other countries with sizeable Croat populations.
Prtenjaca believes this massive support for the player may help him overturn the FIFA-imposed ban and that Simunic will be able to take part at the World Cup after all.
“We hope we’ll collect at least 180,000 signatures in support of Josip,” said the attorney to the Bosnian online news magazine Fenix. “We wish to show FIFA that many Croats do not share the opinion of those who reported Simunic to the world football authorities.”