(The New York Times)-Giorgos Katidis, a 20-year-old Greek soccer player who celebrated a game-winning goal on Saturday by giving a Nazi salute to fans in Athens, has been banned for life from representing his country in international tournaments.
The Hellenic Football Federation met Sunday in response to the incident and decided to ban the player, who has previously captained the national team in youth competitions. “The player’s action to salute to spectators in a Nazi manner is a severe provocation, insults all the victims of Nazi barbarity and injures the deeply pacifist and human character of the game,” the federation said as Greece marked the 70th anniversary of the deportation of thousands of Greek Jews to Nazi death camps.
Katidis, who initially claimed that he was not saluting but pointing at a friend in the stands, said later that he had no idea what the gesture meant. In an apology issued after the ban, he called his salute “totally unacceptable,” adding, “I feel terrible for those I upset with the stupidity of my act.”
The player also said on Sunday: “I want to clarify that I am not a fascist or neo-Nazi or racist. I have a step-brother from Puerto Rico, and all my family are from the Black Sea and have experienced racism in the worst ways.” He added: “I sincerely apologize to my teammates and everyone involved with the club that I have insulted in not knowing exactly what I had done in my celebration. Nonetheless, the fact that I did not know what I was doing is no excuse.”
Video and photographs of the incident showed that while several members of the club’s support staff celebrated with the player, others looked disturbed by the gesture, and at least one older man tried to pull his arm down.
In messages posted on Twitter late Saturday, Katidis, a midfielder for AEK Athens, insisted that he was “not racist,” and claimed that he was entirely ignorant of the meaning of the salute. “I despise fascism,” he wrote. “I would not have done it if I knew what something like this meant. I know what the consequences are and I would never have done it.”
Δεν είμαι ρατσιστης σε καμία περίπτωση
— giwrgos katidis (@GiwrgosKatidis) 16 Mar 13
Σιχαινομαι τον φασισμό . Δεν θα το έκανα αν ήξερα ότι σημαίνει κάτι τέτοιο.
Ξέρω τις επιπτώσεις και δεν θα το έκανα ποτε.
— giwrgos katidis (@GiwrgosKatidis) 16 Mar 13
Ewald Lienen, the German coach of AEK Athens — known for his left-wing politics during his playing days — endorsed the player’s claim of ignorance. “He hasn’t got a clue about politics,” the coach said. “That’s why we shouldn’t condemn him. Any footballer who knows about my past, where I’m from and my political beliefs would know that such a gesture would lead to that being his last game for AEK,” the Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported. “He most likely saw such a salute on the Internet or somewhere else and did it without knowing what it means.”
The incident comes just two months after a German-Ghanaian star of the Italian club AC Milan, Kevin-Prince Boateng, walked off the field during an exhibition match to protest racist chants.
The emerging Greek star’s gesture was also made in the wake of recent gains by a neo-Nazi party in Greek politics. As the Athens daily Kathimerini noted, “Golden Dawn, the far-right party that entered Parliament last summer, has defended the Nazi salute, which has been performed in public by some of its M.P.’s, including leader Nikos Michaloliakos, by claiming that it is an ancient Greek greeting.”
European soccer authorities have been forced to confront expressions of sympathy with fascist movements from players and fans more than once in recent years. In 2005, the Italian star Paolo Di Canio was banned for one game when he greeted die-hard fans of his club, Lazio, with the so-called Roman salute, which he said was merely part of the region’s cultural heritage. “I am a fascist, not a racist,” he said then. “I made the Roman salute because it’s a salute from a comrade to his comrades and was meant for my people. With this stiff arm I do not want to incite violence or racial hatred.”
A few years earlier, extremists among the Lazio fan base, known as “ultras,” held aloft banners celebrating the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and praising the Serbian warlord Arkan, who led bands of armed soccer hooligans from Belgrade into Croatia and Bosnia on rampages of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.
The unapologetic Di Canio managed to survive the controversy generated by his gesture to continue his playing career and move into management. He has recently been mentioned as a possible manager at the top level in English soccer.