ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia have banned their own fans from the team's Euro 2016 away qualifiers fearing racist incidents could get them thrown out of the competition, the Balkan country's Football Association (HNS) said on Friday.
"There will be no organised section for Croatian fans in games at Azerbaijan on Sept. 3, Norway on Sept. 6 and Malta on Oct. 13," the HNS said on its website (www.hns-cff.hr).
"UEFA's punishment (for recent racist incidents) and their explanation shows in no uncertain terms that any future racist-related offence could mean Croatia's expulsion from the European Championship.
"It was a difficult decision (to ban supporters) but and we truly regret that decent fans have to put up with it, but it was a sacrifice required to fight hooliganism and make sure millions of Croatian supporters get to cheer us in the Euro 2016 finals."
Croatia are top of Group H with 13 points from six games, having had one point deducted for a racist incident in a 1-1 home draw with Italy in June.
A swastika was imprinted on the pitch in Split's Poljud stadium days before the fixture and a chemical agent was used so that it became visible during the match, played behind closed doors for a previous offence.
Croatia were handed the crowd ban for racist chants by their fans during a 5-1 home win over Norway in March.
Following the swastika incident, UEFA deducted one point from Croatia's tally, fined them 100,000 euros ($113,690.00) and ordered them to play their next two home games in UEFA competition behind closed doors.
It means Croatia will not have any supporters for the rest of their qualifying campaign, as their home match against Bulgaria on Oct 10. is sandwiched between the three away games.
"UEFA's decision amounts to something of a second yellow card without the red one being brandished, hence it is clear there will be no more leniency," said HNS executive director Damir Vrbanovic.
"We banned our fans reluctantly and after a long debate, but we are as motivated as we've ever been to win this battle and protect our national team."
The top two in each of the nine groups qualify automatically for the tournament in France and they will be joined by the four playoff winners contested by the eight best third-placed teams.
Hosts France also qualify automatically.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Ken Ferris)