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Croatia national team player leads fans in controversial salute: Patriotism, or hate speech?

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Josip Šimunić lead the Croatia fans in a salute used during the country's time as a fascist state. To many it may have been perceived as patriotic, but others see the chant as hate speech.

Jamie McDonald

After Croatia beat Iceland 2-0 on Tuesday night to book their place at the World Cup, defender Josip Šimunić found himself holding a microphone. And the way he used it just might bring about repercussions for the player, the fans and even the team.

If you're not from the Balkans, this video likely makes little sense to you. Šimunić is leading the Croatia supporters -- or a vocal segment, anyway -- in a controversial salute called "Za dom spremni". Roughly translated, it's "For the homeland -- ready!"

So what? It was a festive night and Croatia were likely basking in patriotism, ready to cheer on their side in Brazil. Te chanting of nationalist slogans shouldn't be that surprising. In fact, according to a poll on Večernji list, nearly 75% of readers felt "everything" should be allowed in celebrations.

Except "Za dom spremni" isn't just a celebration of Croat patriotism. The salute has historical roots dating back to the 1800s, but it gained infamy during the second World War, when the Ustaše movement embraced it. The salute became a symbol of the fascist NDH, the "independent" state of Croatia allied with the Nazis. Its links to the Ustaše and NDH make "Za dom spremni" similar to the Nazi salute.

And yes, that assertion is going to get a lot of tongues wagging. The message boards are already lighting up with people defending Šimunić and the salute, defending its roots in patriotism rather than its association with the Ustaše. But try as one might to whitewash it, this chant has negative associations with one of Croatia's bleakest periods in history. Like their Nazi allies, the NDH engaged in large-scale executions, particularly of Jews, Roma and Serbs. It is that black spot that many associate with the "Za dom spremni" salute.

Šimunić, who was born in Australia to Bosnian Croat parents, was likely coming from a position of ignorance rather than from a desire to hearken back to fascist days. But that matters little. Fans of Croatia and its club sides have been fined for the use of this chant in Europe, as it is classified as "hate speech." The same outcome is likely to occur here. As much as those chanting along may have wanted the salute to mean little more than a patriotic love for their country, its roots carry a deeper meaning.

A World Cup might be about taking up colors and cheering on your country. But there's also a tension inherent in the World Cup: it brings nations together to play a global game. And on this global stage, there's no room for hate speech. Or racism. Or anti-homophobic comments. And such occurrences can't be brushed off with the excuse of ignorance, or brushed with the colors of patriotism, or cloaked in the guise of banter.

It remains to be seen whether Šimunić or the Croatia national team will be fined for using the salute to rally fans after the final whistle. But "patriotism", "celebrations" and/or "love of country" should not be used as buzzwords to make excuses for what has been classified as hate speech.

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