Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, center, applauds prior the quarterfinal match between Russia and Croatia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium, in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, July 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Convicted Croatia team official keeps World Cup VIP status

MOSCOW — A Croatian soccer official will be allowed to watch the team’s World Cup semifinal match from a VIP section on Wednesday despite being convicted last month in a corruption case linked to the transfer of captain Luka Modric.

When Croatia beat Russia in the quarterfinals on Saturday, the director general of the country’s soccer federation sat in the same row of seats as Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Damir Vrbanovic has stayed in office since being sentenced in June to a three-year jail term even though FIFA’s disciplinary code bars officials “convicted of a criminal offence in the past five years.”

However, FIFA says the sentence is not final because the former Dinamo Zagreb director general is appealing to a higher court.

“The evaluation of the position of the person concerned, then, is made only by its national association according to the applicable national law,” FIFA said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The Croatian federation said any other interpretation would be “unconstitutional and serious violation of his human rights.”

“In accordance to the Croatian and general law, Mr. Vrbanovic is innocent because the relevant judgment is not final and binding,” the soccer body said in a statement to the AP.

The criminal case hasn’t affected Croatia’s progress to its first World Cup semifinal in 20 years, despite Modric being charged with perjury in March.

Defender Dejan Lovren, another former Dinamo Zagreb player, is also under investigation for suspected false statements.

The case relates to alleged embezzlement and tax evasion in Dinamo’s sales of Modric to Tottenham in 2008 and Lovren to Lyon in 2010.

Prosecutors targeted Zdravko Mamic, a longtime influential figure in Croatian soccer as former Dinamo director, former vice-president of the national federation, and close ally of current president Davor Suker.

Mamic was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison and left Croatia for Bosnia-Herzegovina before the verdict was reached on June 6. His brother, Zoran, a former Dinamo coach, was sentenced to 4 years, 11 months.

They were accused of embezzling 15 million euros ($17.6 million) through fictitious deals during transfers of several Dinamo players to clubs outside Croatia.

Modric appeared irritated when asked on June 15 in Kaliningrad if the case was a cloud over Croatia’s tournament ahead of its opening game against Nigeria.

“Nothing smarter to ask?” Modric said. “It’s a World Cup, it’s not about other things.”

Suker, the star forward in Croatia’s 1998 World Cup team and an elected member of UEFA’s executive committee, has not been implicated. He declined to talk with reporters at a Moscow hotel on Sunday.

UEFA said Wednesday it is awaiting developments to assess Vrbanovic’s role as a member of European soccer’s committee overseeing national team competitions.

FIFA said it is “monitoring the situation concerning Mr. Vrbanovic as it expects all officials and member associations involved in the 2018 FIFA World Cup to abide by the core values of fair play and protect the image of football.”

___

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press

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