UEFA charges Croatia soccer body for fan disorder, racism

PARIS (AP) — After Croatia was once more the focus of racist behavior and fan disorder at a European Championship match, UEFA formally opened a disciplinary case against the country’s national soccer federation on Saturday.

The federation apologized for the incidents during Croatia’s 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic on Friday, while also blaming its national government for not identifying and punishing hooligans in recent years.

“The Saint-Etienne incident is the product of the passivity of the Croatian state, and today we have all become hostages of a group of hooligans,” the Croatian federation said in a statement.

Play was stopped for several minutes late in the match when firecrackers and lit flares were thrown on the field from one end of the stadium where its fans were sitting.

Croatia fans then fought among themselves as players appealed for calm.

UEFA’s anti-discrimination monitors said Saturday they also reported hearing fans singing far-right songs and displaying offensive banners at the stadium.

UEFA said the charges against Croatia related to racist behavior, crowd disturbances, throwing objects on the field and setting off fireworks.

The Croatian federation faces at least a five-figure fine when UEFA’s disciplinary panel judges the case on Monday.

It is the second round of charges involving Croatia fans in France. UEFA charged the federation over flares being lit and a fan running on the field to celebrate a goal with Croatia players in a 1-0 win over Turkey last Sunday. That case will be judged on July 21.

Croatia has a track record of disruptive fans, including at each game it played at Euro 2012.

The federation claimed it “warned UEFA and French police about the hooligans’ intentions to interrupt the match.”

The national team has a faction of fans with far-right views, and also groups who are protesting against the widely unpopular soccer body, which is based in Zagreb and led by former Croatia great Davor Suker.

“This deserves zero tolerance,” Suker said in an earlier statement on the federation’s website. “Croatian Football Federation is doing its job, and I call upon government institutions to do theirs. We’ll ask French police for help.”

Many believe the repeated disorder is an attempt to provoke UEFA and FIFA to act in order to shame Suker and other officials linked to Dinamo Zagreb.

Four years ago, all three Croatia games in Poland were also delayed because of flares and fireworks being thrown on the field.

Then, UEFA fined the federation a total of 135,000 euros ($170,000) for a series of incidents including racial insults aimed at Italy forward Mario Balotelli, a fan running on the field, and fans’ offensive chants and banners.

UEFA already deducted a point from Croatia in Euro 2016 qualifying when fans created a swastika image on the field before a home qualifying match in Split.

The Italy game, and a subsequent qualifier against Bulgaria, were played in empty stadiums as punishment from UEFA for fans using far-right chants and banners.

An earlier qualifier against Italy, in Milan, was also stopped in each half because of flares thrown on the field from a section of Croatia fans.

In separate cases, FIFA has already barred fans from attending the first two of Croatia’s five 2018 World Cup home qualifying matches in Zagreb in September and November.

On Saturday, the Croatian federation apologized to “the spectators at Saint-Etienne, to the television audience, and the Czech Republic national football team.”