I am about to enter very dangerous territory – a story carrying a trifecta of controversy.
It involves an Australian footballer who decided not to represent his country of birth, who allegedly expressed sympathy for the Nazis in public.
Mixed in is the long, bloody history of Balkan military and politics.
I will try and take an arms-length, objective view of it all, but doubtless I am going to step on somebody’s toes along the way.
My curiosity was piqued the other day when Saturday’s Canberra Times carried a story about former Croatian international, Josip Šimunić, continuing to fight to clear his name after FIFA imposed a severe ban, effectively ending his international career.
Most Socceroos fans will remember Šimunić as the Croatian footballer who received three yellow cards when Australia met Croatia in the final game of the group stage of the 2006 World Cup. One of many controversies that game, Australia would go on to meet Italy in the knockout stages after securing an all-important 2-2 draw.
The other notable aspect about that match was not that there was at least one Australian representing Croatia, but the Socceroos had no fewer than six players in their match day squad who were of Croatian descent.
The referee that day, Englishman Graham Poll, an experienced international referee, would never referee another World Cup game again. He wrote in his memoirs that when he showed Šimunić his first yellow, he mistakenly wrote down “Australia number three” (Craig Moore) because of Šimunić’s accent.
Šimunić was born and raised in Canberra, having played for Croatia Deakin, and was good enough to attend the AIS. He played a couple of seasons as a teenager for the Melbourne Knights in the NSL before being picked up by Hamburg and went on to have a successful career with Hertha Berlin.
He openly admits that his dream from childhood was to represent Croatia, and ultimately he was successful. But around the time of the 2006 World Cup, not a lot of love was displayed for him on the part of most Socceroos fans.
One small point of clarification, while Šimunić is of Croatian ethnicity, his parents were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Damn. I tried to stay out of Balkan politics, but in a story like this, it’s almost impossible.
This is a region which, since from the fall of the Roman Empire, has been fought over continuously by Franks, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (plus myriad Slavic neighbours). That’s before we even get to World War II and the post-war period.
There have been many bloody battles and many opportunities to fight for independence and self-determination.
Šimunić’s sin was to speak two words which had been used by Croatian nationalists for centuries. Unfortunately for him, these same words were also associated with the Ustaše, a Croatian ultranationalist movement which was aligned with the Nazis during World War II.
It was in the final qualifying game for the 2014 World Cup against Iceland in which Croatia had just won qualification. Šimunić turned to the Croatian fans and shouted Za dom! (For the Homeland!), to which the Croatian fans responded, Spremni (Ready, or We are ready).
The Canberra Times described the expression as being “similar” to the one used by the Ustaše during World War II. Either way, it’s not difficult to imagine that such an expression has been used by Croatians over the course of centuries of having to fight for independence.
The main problem for Šimunić is that neo-Nazi sympathies remain rife across many ultras throughout Eastern Europe, and FIFA had to be seen to be sending a strong message against the public expression of such sympathies.
Clearcut or not, Šimunić’s words were viewed in that light, and he paid the price. Šimunić appealed to the CAS but it ruled in favour of FIFA.
More recently, Šimunić has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in a final bid to clear his name.
He has released a documentary giving his side of the story, and most recently he has taken up the position of Assistant Coach OF the Croatian national football team.
While I understand his cause is unlikely to garner too much sympathy among Australian sports fans, there is no denying his unique place in Australian sporting history.