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Greek player banned for fascist salute

By Piers Edwards, for CNN
March 18, 2013 -- Updated 2215 GMT (0615 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Giorgos Katidis barred for life from senior Greek national team after fascist salute
  • 20-year-old says he did not know the meaning of his actions
  • Leading AEK fans group calls for his exclusion from the club

(CNN) -- Adopting a fascist salute to celebrate a goal in any country would border on the provocative -- but to do it in a land where the scars of Germany's wartime occupation still run deep would appear to be professional suicide.

So it has proved for AEK Athens' Giorgos Katidis, whose actions after scoring the winning goal against Veria on Saturday so enraged Greek football officials that the former Under-19 captain has been barred from playing for the senior national team for life.

"The action by the player to salute spectators with a Nazi salute defies common sense, profoundly shows disrespect to all the victims of Nazi atrocities and injures the peaceful and deeply human character of football," said the Greek football federation.

"The federation condemns unequivocally and categorically such actions."

Katidis, who turned 20 last month and led Greece to the final of last year's European Under-19 Championships in Estonia, has denied having any knowledge of the significance of his actions.

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"I'm not a racist -- no way," he wrote on his Twitter site. "I hate fascism. I wouldn't have done it if I knew it meant something like that. I know the consequences."

As this weekend's international break approaches, not to mention the many more that will follow, the tattooed youngster may be well advised to study his history.

For despite the seven decades that have passed, many Greeks still shudder when they recollect the 300,000 citizens who died as the Nazis controlled mainland Greece between 1941 and 1944.

This would have been the very first good reason for the midfielder to avoid celebrating his goal in the Super League in the style he did -- but unfortunately for him, there were several more.

The recent financial crisis affecting his country has heralded a rise in popularity for the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn, one of Europe's most controversial -- and right-wing -- parties.

Having taken just 0.2% in Greece's 2009 elections, the far right group's campaign for the 2012 elections involved an aggressive anti-immigration stance, feeding upon the chronic financial anxiety of those suffering from both unemployment and austerity measures.

The campaigning stance was so successful it resulted in a significant 7% of the vote -- and 18 seats in parliament.

Read: Immigration anger feeds Greek far right

While many Greeks are ashamed of Golden Dawn's burgeoning popularity -- and would never want to be associated with them in any way -- Katidis' actions came while playing for a club founded by immigrants in the 1920s.

Despite the furore, the midfielder has received support from his coach Ewald Lienan, who -- as a German -- could have been forgiven for criticizing the footballer's actions.

"He is a young kid who does not have any political ideas. He most likely saw such a salute on the internet, or somewhere else, and did it without knowing what it means," Lienan said.

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"I am 100% sure that Giorgos did not know what he did. He was crying in the dressing room seeing how the media reacted. He is young and needs protection."

Katsidis' late goal was of great significance to both AEK and the club's fans, given that the 2-1 win enabled one of Greek football's traditional giants -- currently in a crisis -- to pull four points clear of the relegation zone.

Yet his celebration in front of the supporters in the Olympic Stadium only served to alienate a section who had initially reveled in his onfield display.

"There is no way we can forgive fascist salutes," said influential supporters' group -- Original 21 -- in a statement directed at Katidis.

"You are not welcome among us -- you are wanted! We are not convinced by your tears or by your excuses. Fascists and Nazis do not belong in AEK."

Meanwhile, the Greek federation has told CNN that the ban on Katidis only applies to internationals and has no bearing on his standing within his club.

AEK, champions on 11 occasions but whose stock has mirrored the Greek economy's by plummeting in recent years, have asked the player to explain his actions on Wednesday -- the same day Super League officials are set to discuss the case.

In 2005, Lazio striker Paolo di Canio was handed a one-match ban by Italian football authorities after making a fascist salute towards his club's fans during a game against Juventus.

Greek media has reported that Katidis has been given time off by the club in order to visit his wife in Italy since the incident, with many reporting that his AEK future is in doubt.

Just seven months into a four-year contract signed last August, the fortunes of a youngster who rose to prominence after impressing at Aris Salonika have been derailed for the most unlikely of reasons.

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