Sydney United coach Miro Vlastelica (left) and Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Darren Bark at Sydney Jewish Museum. Photo: Flavio Brancaleone

Ben Schneiders and Simone Fox Koob
SMH/The Age
June 25, 2023

They were some of the ugliest scenes observed in Australian sport for years.

Three Sydney United fans were charged for making Nazi salutes at October’s Australia Cup soccer final, while nearby another fan flew the Ustasha flag – the emblem of the murderous World War II regime of the Nazi-puppet state of Croatia.

The salutes at the match led to condemnation including that of commentator and former Socceroo and Craig Foster, who described it as “the most abhorrent thing that we’ve seen at a football match for a very long time”.

Last week, there was an important step in making amends.

Representatives of the Jewish community and Sydney United – a storied football club created by Croatian migrants in 1958 – met on Monday at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Their meeting came days after a recent investigation by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, which uncovered how major sporting and cultural clubs in Australia’s large Croatian community openly celebrate fascist anniversaries while displaying emblems, flags and maps of the Ustasha regime.

In response to those stories, Croatia’s ambassador to Australia, Betty Pavelich, said there was no place for the “glorification of totalitarian regimes, extremism or intolerance”.

The investigation has since been translated and reproduced or referenced in at least 10 news sites in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia.

After last week’s meeting, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Darren Bark said he had been impressed with Sydney United’s determination to tackle the issue of racism within the club’s supporter base.

“We’ve been working very closely with Sydney United behind the scenes to ensure a better culture among the fans,” he said.

Bark said the meeting with the club’s coach and a board member was part of an ongoing process. “I see the club’s participation sending a very clear message that racist behaviour of any kind is not tolerated.”

Sydney United head coach Miro Vlastelica described the visit to the Jewish Museum as a “humbling experience” and “very educational” about the struggles of the Jewish people and others during the war. “One that makes me feel grateful for what we have today – peace, friendship and multiculturalism that this great country has given us,” he said.

“It also touched home, as it reminded me of the struggles that my family and community were also subject to during and after the war, and having lost family members in horrible circumstances at the hands of dictators.”

Sydney United has some active far-right supporters who have regularly displayed Ustasha or Nazi symbols over many years. A statement by the club issued after the Australia Cup final warned it would not welcome fans that were not respectful: “Their views will never be tolerated.”

But that position created a backlash from some, and the Sydney United Supporters (SUS) group said on Facebook: “On behalf of SUS we don’t apologise to anyone. ZDS (za dom spremni).” The chant at the end of the message was the same as that used by the far-right Ustase movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

Football Australia fined Sydney United $15,000 in November for the fan behaviour and hit the club with a series of suspended sanctions. Part of making amends was compulsory education and training with Jewish and First Nations groups.

Bark said the salutes were “vile symbols” with “no place in modern Australia”. “They are not only an affront to the Jewish community but to all Australians,” he said.

He said displaying a Nazi symbol was not only “abhorrent but is illegal as well”.

Three men were charged under NSW laws for making the salutes and have said they will plead not guilty. In NSW, laws against Nazi symbols are the broadest in Australia, allowing discretion to the courts to define what a Nazi symbol is. Laws in Victoria – and proposed federal laws – are narrower, proscribing a limited number of Nazi symbols.

While Sydney United is taking steps to tackle racism, there has been no public response from the Melbourne Knights Football Club to an April 10 incident, when six men were filmed doing stiff-armed salutes as they sang a song extolling the Ustasha.

Melbourne Knights president Pave Jusup declined to comment.

In the days before The Age and Sydney Morning Herald investigation was published, Jusup removed two of his social media accounts on which he is pictured posing in front of an Ustasha flag. But he has since restored the accounts with that image.

The Ustasha’s legacy includes laws persecuting Serbs, Jews and Roma, stripping them of their rights and establishing concentration camps, including one for children. The ethnic cleansing, done with the agreement of Nazi Germany, is considered by scholars to constitute genocide.

Football Australia has refused to comment directly on the incident at the Knights, citing the fact that the salutes did not occur at a football match or function.

“For this reason, we aren’t able to pass comment,” a spokesperson said.

Football Victoria has not responded to requests for comment.