- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) - Croatia’s prime minister has called on UEFA to refrain from severely punishing the country’s national team after a swastika pattern appeared on the pitch during a European Championship qualifier against Italy last month.

Zoran Milanovic said in a letter Wednesday to UEFA President Michel Platini that “draconian sanctions” would “destroy the national team” and that the swastika incident was directed against the Croatian Football Association, which has become embroiled in a dispute with local fans.

A tough sanction by European football’s ruling body “would imprint a permanent scar on the souls of Croatian fans and damage soccer in Croatia in the long term,” Milanovic said.

He also said that police were close to finding the culprits.

The 1-1 draw on June 12 in Split was played behind closed doors as punishment for racist chanting and other misconduct by Croatia fans during an earlier qualifier against Norway.

The swastika symbol had been sprayed on the grass and became visible when the floodlights were turned on, making a clear mark in the middle of the half that Italy was attacking in the first period.

Groundsmen attempted to cover it up during halftime, but to little avail.

The Euro 2016 qualifier in Milan last November between Italy and Croatia - which also ended in a 1-1 draw - was temporarily halted by crowd trouble. In a friendly with Italy in Livorno in 2006, around 200 Croatia fans formed a human swastika in the stands. They also gave Nazi salutes.

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